When your spaghetti grows legs

When your spaghetti grows legs

It’s been quiet. Probably too quiet.

About this time last year, I was charging ahead on the Wise Economy Workshop. Getting a little burned out and wondering if I was making any real progress, but charging ahead, per usual.

Then one of the handfuls of spaghetti that I had been throwing at walls for years grew legs, and I found myself running like crazy to try to catch up with it.

As we come out of the early start-up phase on that, and my partners and I get ready to start scaling up what we’ve constructed, I want ti tie what I have been about for the last….5, 10, 20 years…. to where my primary focus is now. I’ve learned that if you’re going to do anything effective in this world, you have to be ready to change all the time. So the details of this might shift over time. But the core story holds.


I have trying to figure out how to fix local economies for a long, long time. As a kid in Cleveland, I had a front row seat for the first act of the collapse of the industrial way of life, as I watched my father struggle, and ultimately fail, to keep the family paint factory in business as everything around us changed. My first lessons business, inadvertently, revolved around about how businesses and communities inter-depend on each other, and how the strength or weakness of one builds or tears apart the other — as well as the people around them.

As an adult, I’ve spent decades trying to help people who care about their communities figure out how to improve them, remake them, hold them together. I’ve done that in some of the wealthiest and the poorest communities in the nation, using tools that ranged from history to tourism to land use planning to economic development.

And every time, I’ve felt the same frustration in my gut: we’re not fixing the problem.

Tourism programs didn’t create wealthier people.

Downtown streetscapes didn’t lead to full storefronts and sidewalks.

Plans, even when implemented, didn’t lead to communities that worked better.

In 2010, I became an entrepreneur for the second time, with the intention of figuring out how to do…. Whatever that missing piece was. And I stumbled around a lot, and wrote a lot of words, and threw a lot of spaghetti at a lot of walls, trying to find that answer.

I got really good at defining what was wrong. I was not as good at figuring out how to do it right.

Most of the time, I felt like I was stuck inside a box — a box that I knew needed to be opened, but I had spent so long inside it that I could not find the latch.

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to an innovator and intrapreneur who was developing interesting new ways to connect small businesses, university students, and community organizations. His vision was big, grand, and unlike anything I had ever encountered. It created solutions — and value — by lacing together the unmet needs of groups and organizations who did not know they needed each other, and using those connections to give people the tools that they needed to accomplish what they knew, as the ones who knew the place best needed to be done.

After hours upon hours of talking and arguing and coffee-drinking and whiteboard-scribbling, we developed a company designed to carry out that vision — of creating new, needed, important solutions by enabling people across the spectrum to fully capitalize on their own agency and the real powers of a networked, grassroots, local and small business-driven economy.

Right now, Econogy is

-> managing consulting projects where university students design solutions for small businesses,

-> building a training system that helps small businesses owners coach each other to improve their marketing and operations,

-> developing a new systemic approach to building economic and community health in neighborhoods from the core values and hidden assets of the neighborhood, and

-> designing a Well-Being Index that will allow us to build on the assets of disadvantaged neighborhoods, not just obsess over their problems.

It’s been a cyclone of learning, trying, failing, succeeding, new ideas, new solutions, new partners.

It’s been 12-hour days and constant change and the exhaustive work of re-evaluating everything I thought I knew, because sometimes that turns out to be wrong.

It’s also been the best work I think I’ve ever done in my life.

I don’t quite know yet where Wise Economy fits into this. The consulting work is largely moving over to Econogy’s Link and Neighborhood Grow programs, and Wise Fool Press will re-launch under the Econogy name in the next few months. I am still speaking, and I’m returning to writing as a way, if nothing else, to process all of these changes. And I’m looking forward to untangling and describing the new solutions we seem to uncover every day.

I’d love to be able to point you to our website, but we have been so insanely busy that it’s still under construction. When it’s launched, you’ll be able to learn more at econogy.co. And if you find yourself in Cincinnati, you can join us and our revolving cast of students, business wizards, designers, community leaders and others at our new offices in an 1880s brewery in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine. Just let me know.

Thanks for caring, and thanks for doing what you do. I used to sign off my podcast by saying, “Go get ‘em,” meaning “Go out there and keep doing the important things you do,” but I think I’m going to revise that:

Let’s go get ‘em.

Managing the Axe-Grinders Deep Dive Workshop at National APA conference!

This post is especially relevant to two groups of you readers:


  1. People who will be at the American Planning Association Conference in Phoenix this week, and
  2. People who don’t like ugly and unproductive public meetings.

I realize that there’s probably more of you in that second category than the first. Read on for more!


I have the wonderful opportunity to present a Deep Dive workshop on Tuesday morning, April 5, called

Manage the Ax-Grinders: Do Better Public Participation

 This is an expanded version of a training that I’ve done a few times before that draws from my years of experience running high-tension public meetings.  It’s based on a chapter in my book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A Guide to Doing Public Meetings that Actually Make Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).book cover
Here’s what we’ll be doing:

This Deep Dive will cover two related topics: how to manage public meetings to defuse confrontation and enable fair participation, and how to re-organize the public participation process, when feasible, to avoid problems and create a better experience in the first place.

Both sections of the workshop will use a combination of discussion, role-playing, and analysis to highlight how different meeting management strategies change the behavior and experience of participants.  

We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, depending on how good the role-players are, we might throw things…

OK, probably not that, but I guarantee you’ll laugh and have fun while you’re learning.  Unless you’re looking to be bored. In that case, you shouldn’t come.


The session will be at 9:30 and last until about noon.  Check the conference agenda for location.

If you’re not going to be there, but you think this might be useful for your organization, staff, members, or others, let me know.  It’s a lot of fun, and you will never dread a public meeting quite so much ever again!



Webinar on Inclusive Entrepreneurship from Startup Champions Network!

I had a great time yesterday doing a webinar for the Startup Champions Network — the continuation of the Startup Nation initiative launched by the White House a few years ago. Let by the ever-impressive Bill Kenney,  we had the pleasure of talking about how to enable people who haven’t been part of the entrepreneurship community to be able to capitalize on their potential.

Andrew Young from Startup Weekend New York City told the story of what happened when they did a Startup Weekend in immigrant neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island, and Jess Knox from Maine Accelerates Growth shared some insights into how their network of rural communities build a sense of the possible in places where entrepreneurs aren’t usually part of the equasion.  And I got to talk about things like peer support, mentoring and coaching, and the reason why babysitting (as in, for babies) can make all the difference.


The webinar was done via Google Hangout, and it’s already available for you perusal:



Thanks again to Bill, Andrew and Jess for such a great conversation!

Introducing a new way to grow better business districts: Neighborhood Grow

Over the past few months, I have been working on a new partnership called Econogy.  Econogy combines business school educators and students with neighborhood business districts to give local businesses and entrepreneurs something they usually can’t afford:

Industry-leading strategic planning and business operation assistance.



One aspect of Econogy that I am particularly excited about is a service called Neighborhood Grow.  Neighborhood Grow takes the kind of neighborhood planning that we’ve all been doing for time immemorial, and drives that deeper to make a real difference for the business district organization and for businesses themselves.  Instead of simply preparing a plan and then hoping to find the money and expertise to do the work that the organization can’t do alone, Neighborhood Grow allows planning to flow directly into implementation by transitioning seamlessly to the expertise in marketing, branding, management, event logistics and more that have to be mustered if the plan is going to go into action.  

Small businesses and neighborhood organizations often operate by the seat of their pants, doing the best they can on business and management fundamentals despite the fact that, chances are, no one has ever taught them sound practices.  And conventional business management assistance, such as consulting, is too expensive and too elaborate to be of any good.

Neighborhood Grow grew out of a realization that students who are learning business management and related skills need and want opportunities to apply what they are learning in the real world.  These students not only need to build their resumes and show future employers that they have relevant, practical skills, but they increasingly want to do so in a way that makes the world better.  Because of that, universities are increasingly working project-based learning into their coursework, and particularly enterprising students are realizing that they can stand out in the job search when they can show how they have used their skills to make a business and a community better.

The Neighborhood Grow process starts with convening participants and gathering existing conditions and identifying visions, but it then focuses on near-term, practical steps that can be taken to help the neighborhood business district operate better.  This might include re-branding and a tech-savvy marketing campaign; business training in specific skills, creating and managing events, improving accounting and management systems, or more.  Because the focus is on operations, instead of our usual heavy emphasis on design solutions, Neighborhood Grow initiatives can make a real impact in much less time and for much less money than it takes to build a streetscape!

Here’s a flow chart of the Neighborhood Grow process.  NG Process


Neighborhood Grow is based on the work of Xavier University’s X-Link and similar project-based learning initiatives across the country.  As far as we know, this is the first time it’s been applied to neighborhood business districts and their organizations.

We’re still in the early stages, and formal marketing materials aren’t all polished up yet. If you’re interested in learning how Neighborhood Grow can help your community, send me a note and we’ll talk!



Della does a 360 Review that you might actually like ….with GIFs!

A 360 review doesn’t sound like a good thing to get for Christmas, but when the Emerging Local Government Leaders’ Network (ELGL.org) posted their interview with me right before the holiday hiatus, that was a nice way to end 2015 — in part because the wizards behind the site are masters of the GIF meme, and they gifted me with an extra little GIF of my favorite song in the interview!

As ELGL describes the feature:

Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.” We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.

OK, maybe that last part indicates that I shouldn’t be so happy about it…

It’s a wide-ranging discussion, and it touches everything from civic technology to working parenthood.  And it includes GIFs from Parks and Recreation and The Office, so you know you have plenty of reason to read it.  And in case that’s not enough, here’ s a little taste:


Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?


  • Stop being afraid of residents and start pulling them into the process —  it could be like having your own community think tank, if you open up and create a structured process that pulls people into constructive collaboration and participation.

  • Develop a laser focus on growing the local-based, local-owned, economy, instead of spending all the budget and energy chasing shiny things from Somewhere Else.

  • Elected officials and bosses who are always perfectly well-informed, entirely benevolent, scupulously public-serving and modestly brilliant.  :-)


If you haven’t joined ELGL, make sure you check them out — you’ll be glad you did.  Thanks again to ELGL for the fun!

Design won’t fix it alone

I like designers — urban designers, architects, landscape architect, even database and user experience designers.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and being befriended by and working with a whole lot of people who have that eye, that sense, that skill for making things look good and function.  As a very non-design-skilled person, I like to watch designers work: it’s a fascinating, mysterious thing to me, to create an image or a model of something out of thin air.  I can write all day, but I cannot do that.
But because I have spent so much of my life working with and watching design solutions unfold, I have reached a point where I can’t avoid saying this any longer:
Ladies and gentlemen, please stop thinking that you’re creating the Magic Solution to complex problems.  I’m especially looking at you, architects and urban designers and impassioned urbanist types.  Good design can help solve problems, but it does not do it alone.  And when you believe that — and worse yet, mislead the public into thinking your design solution will Fix That For Them– then you make it all the harder for all of us to actually solve the deeper issues: the ones that we cannot simply build our way out of.
Some of the designers that I have most admired are the people who work for a handful of downtown revitalization organizations across the country.  They get no CNU awards, they often don’t have letters after their names, and very few of them write books stuffed with glossy photos.
A lot of their job consists of drawing or Photoshopping a historically-correct facade onto an old building that has been altered – usually in ways that look awful, and are now decreasing the building’s value and that of those around them.  Their renderings are lovely, but they’re not High Art, or even particularly innovative.  Since they’re trying to return the building to something near its original character, there’s not a lot of room for out-of-the-box thinking.  Typically, their renderings are given to the owner of the building as a means of encouraging him or her to improve their property.
Here’s the important part: these designers don’t just draw something, dump it on the community or property owner, and expect Magic To Happen. The rendering is a door-opener for the conversation, the exploration of new possibilities, the collaboration. When this process works, it’s because the property owner comes to realize that there are options available to them beyond what they previously knew.  The drawing helps, but the drawing does not make that happen.

What we often fail to do in urban design and planning in involve the people who should and need to be engaged in a collaborative search for the best solutions.  We hold meetings, even charrettes, but too often, we simply give them a presentation, let them ask questions, or even ask them what they want, like we would ask a kid what they want for their birthday.
We do that because we assume that they don’t want to do any more, or that they can’t contribute at any higher level than we would ask of a first grader.  And both of those assumptions are wrong.
Here is my increasingly big concern: that we blame the failure of planning or transportation improvements on short-sighted local government executives, or greedy developers, or NIMBYs.  We do that without ever turning the thought process around, and exploring how changing the way we engage people might change the rest of the equation.
My personal hypothesis: we don’t do that, and as a result we default to If You Build It They Will Come, because we don’t know how to design or manage a constructive collaborative process, rather than a lecture, a hearing, or a “what do you want for your birthday?” initiative.
And we don’t do that because no one ever taught us to.
We need to start learning from the extension agents, the dialogue and deliberation experts, even good school teachers, to fundamentally rework the role of community members in planning and governance. Planning and architecture and landscape architects – anyone who designs for civic or public use – should be learning how to do constructive public engagement activities, crowdsourced collaboration, more transparent work, how to pull the public into the process as their own type of subject matter experts on their own communities, similar to the way that we include economists or zoning specialists or other related professionals.
And this needs to be a central part, not only of undergraduate and graduate training, but continuing education as well.  We require professionals to learn law and ethics; should we not also require them to know how to work with the public constructively?
That’s not some Polyanna sentiment, based on an idealized belief that everyone is important.  It’s a very practical sentiment, based on experience:
When I have built collaboration with the community into the planning and design projects that I myself have managed over the years, tensions have dissipated and misunderstandings had faded, and plans that no one ever thought would get approved have had unanimous adoptions.
That’s happened more times than I can count.
And it’s not that the plans themselves were better, or the designs more innvative, or the pictures prettier, than the ones on the project that fell apart in a cloud of fear and anger.
It’s been because the community helped build the plan, which means that they owned and championed it..  And because they were embedded, we found solutions to problems that a team of blue ribbon outsiders would have missed. And we found those before the draft plan was printed.
Those plans succeeded because we recognized that the people of the community are experts on their own community, and we because we knew that we needed to employ their expertise, just as we employed our own.
So my challenge to my design friends is this, borrowing a bit from the inestimable LaurenEllen McCann:
Design with, not for. 
When you do that, you’ll get closer to designing real solutions.

To what end “Vision?”

Continuing yesterday’s commentary:

One of the complaints that design-oriented planners and urban designers sometimes raise is that planners are too process and legal-administration focused.  I documented a particularly strong case of that in this essay reflecting on the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism, when the awards committee decided not to give an award in one category because none of the submissions were “visionary enough” (they also gave an award to a student “plan” that wiped out a large section of the Chicago Loop, which I suppose tells you the kind of “visionary” they were looking for…)

My concern is not that we are teaching planners (and ourselves) not to be visionaries — often we don’t live up to that, but the number of grand unbuilt designs that show up on old plan document shelves and archives all over the country would seem to indicate that the ability to create grand visions is not particularly lacking.  If we were truly spending too much time designing pablum, those shelves and files would be a lot thinner. 

My big concern is that we create visions based on the way we think people *should* behave, *should* react, *should* live.  And not enough based on understanding what people actually want, seek, prioritize, do.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we don’t want to know what the public thinks or how the economic part of the situation works. The fact that the numbers don’t work or that people might have different ideas threatens makes it messy, uncomfortable.  Our visions might be opposed. And, to be very frank, we too often tell ourselves that the public or the money people don’t know  anything constructive to contribute — probably because we’ve had such lousy experience with the kinds of public meetings that, by their fundamental design, force people into a confrontational environment. 

My biggest concern these days isn’t that planners are going to be processors. My biggest concern is that the planning profession is going to repeat the damages of the 50s and 60s — instigating big projects on the basis of some idealized view of the world, while over-simplifying or ignoring what the people who live and work in a community know and understand. 

If I were to advise urban design professors, I would recommend that they spend some time analyzing the urban renewal projects of that era — not just the design and how it works or does not work, but also the process that led to that design. I wrote in detail about what I learned from just one such situation here.

Once you’ve done that, I don’t think you can approach physical planning with the same hubris. The eeriness of the similarities will get to you.

What it really means to be an entrepreneur: it isn’t easy, or safe

Last week was the 5th year anniversary of starting the Wise Economy Workshop– my second foray into entrepreneurship and my first that didn’t stem from a lack of conventional opportunities (meaning, this time I chose this path because I wanted to). Normally, that’s a cause for celebration, or at least a Facebook announcement to solicit some of those “Like” clicks that make you feel good even though you know they don’t mean all that much.

But I didn’t.  I said to myself that I had been too busy, too tired.  Too something.

But the fact of the matter is, at that moment it didn’t feel like much of a thing to celebrate. what success looks like

My business is in the middle of a pivot, a repositioning of what I do and what I offer. I added book publishing and sales, promoted myself as a speaker, built partnerships, tried to figure out ways to make money doing this work that can supplement the fee-for-services consulting that I have done for over 20 years.  From an income perspective, the consulting life can sometimes feel like a particularly nauseating roller coaster, and I wanted to even out some of the plunges.

Pivots are hard. Maybe harder than even a supposed small business economic development expert realized.  And certainly harder than then game plan I laid out a year ago looked like.

Entrepreneurship is hard.  Am I doing the right thing?  Can I trust that potential partner? What do my customers want? Do they know what they really want? (You’re supposed to ask them, but sometimes the answer they give you isn’t clear at all).

Entrepreneurship is scary.  Can I pay that bill?  What happens if I put that one off?  How the hell am I going to pay for (fill in the blank)? What happens if…

Entrepreneurship is tiring.  I finished this, but now that is overdue.  The list never, ever ends.  And the amount to do and the people and time you have almost never match up neatly, whether you’re on your own or managing employees. There is overwhelm and there is famine, and sometimes not much in between.

Entrepreneurship is risky.  What am I giving up? What do I lose, do others lose, if I fail?  We like to believe that anything is possible if you try hard enough.  But a high proportion of small businesses in every field fail to see the five birthday milestone that my business has somehow stumbled across.

And entrepreneurship is lonely.  You have to make the decisions. You have to put on the success mask, even when you might not feel so successful today.  You can’t admit to what’s not working, what you’re scared of, the wolf that seems to pace constantly just outside your well-painted door.  Even to your spouse, your partner, your friend, sometimes. They aren’t in your shoes, and trying to show them the dark places might scare them off.   There’s some evidence of a higher than average rate of depression among tech startup founders.  I would not be surprised if that trend covered a much broader small business population.

I’ve put a lot of thought lately into whether we as communities are really doing the right things to foster small businesses and entrepreneurs–and whether we aren’t unintentionally setting too many of them up for ugly and damaging failures.  Should we tell a poor person, a young person, a retired person that they can be an entrepreneur if they just want to enough, when they may lack personal savings, family support, mentoring, and more?

What do the entrepreneurs that our community really needv– needs that we aren’t seeing because we’re allowing us to be satisfied with feel-good stories, and not truly trying to understand?

How many of our entrepreneurship success stories actually end as a small scale tragedies, with failure lost savings, broken relationships, a deeper slide into the personal and community hopelessness that the “you can do it!!!!” of entrepreneurship was supposed to overcome…

Chances are we stopped looking shortly after the happy ribbon cutting, so we don’t find out.

We probably can’t avoid entrepreneurship failures – it’s part of the deal you accept when you start a business.  My suspicion is that we’re not doing enough.

But not asking the question, not paying attention to the full range of issues that differentiate successes from failures, and insisting that faith in yourself is all you need, you can do it if you just try hard enough…

I am pretty sure now that this is not enough.

If entrepreneurship matters, if healthy small businesses matter, if local ownership and investment matter, if economic opportunity for the historically disadvantaged through self-employment and minority-owned small business matter,  then singing our favorite songs from Sesame Street while tossing around a little money and some how-to-start-a-business classes is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

And that’s not a plea for more money.  The answers to small businesses’  needs are not all found in a pitch prize or a program grant.  And money without a sound underpinning can make the fall only that much harder if and when it comes.

I’m in an ideal situation.  I have a business with low costs, plenty of education, a household such that we will not starve when I have a bad month, good health insurance, a good credit score, friends, family… Not to mention a huge ego and an abnormal level of self-assurance.

And even with all those considerable advantages, I have bad months.  I struggle. I get scared.  I wonder if I made the right choice.  I doubt.

Imagine the situation I would be in if a few of those advantages were missing.


Entrepreneurship is also thrilling, exciting, empowering, and deeply self-actualizing.  On a deep, personal, fundamental level, I’ve been happier in the past 5 years than I ever was before that, because I can feel and see my own self moving into my potential, the potential that was there for a long time but got truncated and stuffed behind an employers’ priorities.  In a strange way, that’s a gut-level peacefulness that I didn’t start to realize until I took that brave (and, truthfully, kind of naive) step 5 years ago.  For the people whose guts cry out to be entrepreneurs, that is probably the most powerful intrinsic motivation.  And it’s what keeps you going through the lean times and the doubt and the fear.

We say that we value entrepreneurs and small businesses, that we want them to grow and prosper in our communities, for a bunch of reasons. But we don’t act on it very well.

We have to do that work of supporting entrepreneurship and small businesses  better, much better, if we are going to achieve any of those benefits.

We have to cultivate small business, the way we cultivate anything of value. Today we often do little more than throw some seed in a vacant lot (“you can do it!!!!), pass a watering can over the field once or twice (“here’s a loan!!!”), and then wonder why the garden doesn’t explode with produce.  As anyone who has worked a garden knows, successful cultivating takes much, much more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what small businesses and entrepreneurs —  like me, I guess — really need if we’re going to get serious about growing that increasingly important small business sector of our local economies– you know, the ones that make most of the new jobs and all that.  But I’ve been putting off writing that down until I got some other projects out of the way.

Maybe I need to move that up the list. For myself as much as anyone else.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Ask

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  


As we discussed in Chapter 2, Asking activities shift the direction of participation — we move from the agency as the sole speaker in Telling, to the public as largely the sole speaker in Asking.  Asking participation usually takes the form of what we call “feedback” activities — this includes a variety of surveying methods, which can range from conventional written surveys to feedback on photographs, road cross-sections, what-if scenarios, and others.  Almost every known online public engagement app or platform includes at least one method of Asking, and typically several.

Asking in-person public engagement methods typically involve a wider variety of methods than Telling presentations, and online Asking strategies tend to closely replicate print or in-person methods.  A brief selection of online Asking strategies available at this time include

  • Opinion surveys
  • Visual Preference surveys
  • Scenario or what-if surveys

and others.

Most commercial sites and platforms enable some variation of the online survey, either independently or through integration with a dedicated site such as SurveyMonkey.  In many cases, a second form of open-ended survey forms the first step in the process called Ideation; this is discussed in the next session.

As most readers have probably learned, effective survey-writing is a science unto itself, and the difference between a reliable survey result and a result that is skewed can depend on seemingly minor issues of phrasing, question placement, etc. Social sciences research methodology and marketing research has given significant amount of attention to the presence of unintended (and sometimes intended) biases embedded in survey question design, which can lead participants to respond in a manner different from what they would do if the question had been worded differently.  Additionally, the length of a survey and the types of feedback options it offers can make a significant impact on the response and completion rate.

Effective surveys rely on questions that will produce quantifiable results to the greatest extent possible so that total results can be reported in a relatively objective fashion (for example, demonstrating the percentage of respondents who agreed with a statement and the breakdown of those responses by such factors as age and location of residence). However, in a public sector context, the option of open-ended written responses should be offered whenever possible, both because people may feel the need to respond in a manner that the pre-programmed response options do not permit, and because, having opened the gates to participation by Asking, not providing an open-ended response option would appear insincere  — and deprive the agency of some of the information to be gained from Asking.

Drawing conclusions from a collection of open ended responses, however, can drag a community into dangerous terrain if the comments are not understood in an appropriate context and used correctly.  Even for experienced and trained surveyors, it is easy to become disproportionately swayed by one well-written, pithy, angry or funny response, or to unconsciously give extra weight to a small number of comments that agree with your preconceived notions or preferences.  The risk in interpreting written comments, then, is that the project staff or elected official may create for him or herself a skewed internal interpretation of what “the public says,” mistaking a small number of comments that stand out strongly in her or his mind for a larger community consensus.  This is a difficult challenge to meet, and it is made more so by the ease with which hundreds of open-ended comments can be created and compiled in an online format.

In general, it is often best to present a collection of open-ended comments to decision-makers behind an introductory section that frames the common themes and overarching issues noted across the entire collection of comments.  An even better strategy would be to conduct sentiment analysis of the body of comments and share a summary of that as a framing to moderate interpretation of the individual comments (sentiment analysis is an algorythm-driven method for analyzing the opinions or emotions attached to particular words or concepts across a body of text.)

Text-dominated survey methods also pose significant challenges for people who have difficulty writing, whether that is because of lack of fluency in the language, physical difficulties in reading or typing long passages, or perceptual disabilities, such as dyslexia.  Additionally, many persons who are otherwise capable of communicating fluently in a text survey may not prefer to do so, and may choose not to participate rather than experience the annoyance and frustration of completing a text survey.  For these reasons, and because of the fact that many people interact with visual information more readily than with written information, survey methods that elicit responses to images should also be incorporated into Asking public engagement whenever possible.

Two common methods for Asking participation using visual information include the Visual Preference Survey and map or image mark-ups.  In both of these contexts, the usual methods for using the technique in person are directly adapted to the online context with relatively little difficulty.  Both, however, present additional challenges in interpretation when used onlinr: for Visual Preference Surveys, the difficulty results from the inability to conclusively identify the reasons for peoples’ choices, while most map-based Asking activities face challenges in terms of compiling results and avoiding the risks of over-emphasizing a small number of participants that may not accurately reflect the overall concensus.

A Visual Preference Survey presents a series of photographs or other images (typically of a physical site) and asks the viewer to indicate his or her preference for the setting portrayed by marking on a number line that extends from a negative number (indicating various levels of dislike) to a positive number (indicating varying levels of support).

A Visual Preference Survey works in an almost identical fashion online as off, but that means that it is also subject to the same limitations that have led some practitioners to challenge its use since it was invented in the 1970s.  The most significant issue with a Visual Preference Survey is that one can seldom be sure exactly what the viewer was responding to – did they like the design of the house, or did they like the tree in the front yard?  Did the negative response reflect the fact that participants didn’t like the building, or that they thought it was too big to fit in well with their own community as it exists today?  Did the cloudy sky in this picture, or the weeds along the crack in the sidewalk in that picture, lead people to give it a lower preference score, even though that was not the element of the photo that we wanted them to respond to?  Short of a detailed debriefing or a focus group follow-up, most visual preference survey administrators never get conclusive answers to those questions, which can make the use of their results problematic, and the potential for a much larger number of participants in an online visual preference survey means that this uncertaintly may also compound.

Similarly, a map-marking activity can also be structured to mimize the need for written comment.  In general, two types of map-marking online public engagement activities have been developed to date.  The older, and potentially more common, is a sort of perceptual mapping activity, in which participants may use a set of icons to mark specific locations as unsafe, valuable, in need of repair or redevelopment, etc.  In general, the responses are limited to the pallette of icons made available by the platform’s designers and selected by the agency, although some specific tools may permit a note of explanation to be attached to the “tag.”   Feedback maps of this type date (at least in concept) as far back as the Google Mash-up technology of the mid-2000s, although almost no one except for diehard technologists could use that system.

A second, more intuitive method derives from the architectural charrette method, in which Post-It notes are often used to attach comments, recommendations, etc to a map or drawing. In the online version, a virtual input can be dragged from a sidebar and “stuck” onto the map; unlike real notes, the online version can incorporate text, images, or even short embedded video clips.  In a situation where this method is being used with a small number of participants (again, after the model of a traditional charrette), the process of vetting and incorporating the feedback into the project can be relatively straightforward, but, as with other types of open-ended feedback, drawing defensible overall conclusions about the participants’ areas of agreement or consensus becomes difficult in the face of a wide range of individual inputs – and made all the harder by the variety of media that the participants may use.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 2)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

Videos. Use of videos in online materials of all types has exploded within recent years, as both expotential increases in digital storage capacity and ubiquitous devices for making and consuming video have proliferated.  Video can have substantial benefits for online public engagement — the ease of video consumption can draw in viewers who might otherwise not linger on the site, and the visual nature of video can definitely increase information retention for some participants.  But video can create some challenges for effective and meaningful Telling:

  • Because of both upload considerations and viewer preferences, short videos of no more than a couple of minutes tend to predominate in online sites of any type, and thus potential viewers may be predisposed to regard anything longer as too long (unless it is something that they came to the site with the intent to watch, such as a presentation or a documentary).  As a result, video as a first-line Telling tool can lack effectiveness because the amount of time needed to convey the same amount of information as in a 300-word written section may take too long, especially if it is not produced in a visually interesting manner.  For “deeper” parts of the information hierarchy, which may be accesseed mostly by people who are invested in the topic and willing to spend some time on it, a longer-form video may be useful.  For the main page of information, however, video is typically best limited to a very broad (and brief) invitation or orientation materials.
  • While some communities and organizations may be comfortable with the more casual style of informal video that may be captured via cell phone, many agencies will want to present a more polished appearance in their Telling videos (even if a more casual approach might have the benefit of humanizing the public engagement initiative).  While casual social media-style video can be filmed and uploaded in a manner of minutes, video that has been even semi-professionally edited, color balanced, audio enhanced, etc. takes both time and either staff skills or the budget to retain professional assistance.  For a public engagement effort with a tight budget, video that requires editing and production may not offer sufficient benefit to be worth the cost.  Instead, it may make sense to use mobile technology to record brief person-on-the-street type interviews as a supplement to other forms of information.  A long selfie-style explanation of a technical topic, on the other hand, will probably only benefit the initiative if extremely well done.
  • Many agencies may find it easier to use one of the comercially-available sites for producing animated online presentations, such as Presi or GoAnimate, to create simple video presentations.  Many of these sites will enable audio voice-over and can incorporate graphics, animations and other presentation methods.  Producing video in this manner can require some technical skills, and may require a subscription to the animation platform, but this method also eliminates potential problems that often plague amateur videography, such as poor lighting and  audio or stiff performances.  If using music, remember that, unless specified by the source, most recorded music is copyrighted and may not be legal to use without permission.


Infographics.  Infographics are basically visual presentations of complex information. An infographic can take the form of a chart or a collection of simple charts, or it can be an image that combines text snippets, illustrations, symbols and other design to convey relatively complex information in a manner that is easier and more visually appealing than conventional lines of text. Infographics are often easier to comprehend because they leverage the highly-refined human cognition trait of pattern recognition – they visually demonstrate patterns and connections in information in a manner that we have honed to understand through generations.

While a number of infographic generators have become available in recent years, producing an infographic that actually aids understanding of a complex topic is not necessarily as intuitive as selecting from a site’s templates and dumping in a data set.  Without thoughtful consideration and some awareness of graphic design and user interface issues, an automatically-generated or poorly-designed infographic can mislead as much as it helps.  For example, many chart wizards will automatically set the axes based on the range of the data provided, but this can skew the visual appearnance of the results by over-emphasizing small differences or otherwise distorting the information.  Similarly, an automatically-generated word cloud (an infographic that renders key words in different sized type based on the frequency with which the word appears in a text) can lose its informative value to the reader if its algorhythms automatically highlight obvious words, such as the name of the city or the project).

Most commercial online public engagement platform providers are likely to have built governors into their infographic generators that should lessen these kinds of errors, if the app or platform offers that capability.  But if you are creating your own infographics, or using an online infographic generator, you should check the results carefully, and ask: if I did not know anything about this project, what conclusions would I draw from this infographic – and are those conclusions correct?  It will also be helpful to consult with an experienced graphic designer and data analyst to make certain that you are not creating an infographic that risks misleading your public.

Interactive graphics. While these are not entirely common within online public engagement at this time, interactive graphics are becoming more and more ubiquitous within online platforms of many kinds, for the same reasons that short text and images are easier to digest online than print-style long form linear text. A common example of an interactive graphic is a Google map: you can pan from the section you see on your screen at one moment to another section, you can zoom in and out, and you can click on a single item on the image to access more information, see photographs, link to information about that location on other sites, etc. ] Interactive graphics can be maps, infographics with links embedded, or any other kind of online feature, and the interaction available may be as simple as a hyperlink or as complex as a pop-up embedded browser screen that pulls in real-time information from another site.

Unless you have a savvy programmer on staff or your online public engagement provider can enable interactive graphics, you may be limited to embedding or linking to interactive graphics on another site.  Whenever possible, however, interactive graphics will probably increase your public reach and accessibility.

Visualizations.  Visualizations are a specific type of interactive graphic that is usually designed to model complex information, such as geographic data or a future site build-out or long-term change in a dimension of the environment, in a two- or three-dimensional manner.  Typically, visualization technology requires a significant level of computing power to manipulate a very large set of data (for example, several GIS files and a few thousand point measures) in a manner that either renders the information in a complex chart or overlays the data onto a base map.  A visualization can usually change on demand if the data sets informing it are manupulated (for example, if the proposed building height in the design is raised from 35 to 40 feet).  Visualizations are particularly valuable for creating 3-D renderings of potential physical spaces, demonstrating how changes in one dimension (such as building height) may impact other issues (such as population density), or showing how complex phenomena (such as tides) may impact other complex situations (such as coastal construction).

Visualization technology has been available for as long as GIS and digital spreadsheets have been around, but recent advances in computing power, online data storage and software has enabled technology providers of all types to generate powerful in-office and cloud-based tools for visualization.  However, few public agencies have made the visualization models that they use available to the public to date; in most cases, any sharing of the findings of the visualization are limited to stills embedded as static images  This may have to do with the amount of computing power and data stream required to render a visualization, but it also appears to indicate a lack of willingness or overall awareness of the potential benefits of enabling the public to rotate and examine the visualization in a manner similar to what staffers do in the office.

Mini Asking activities. We have defined Asking as a different kind of public engagement than Telling, but even in a context focused on Telling, brief and targeted Asking activities can have at least three benefits:

  • They provide an additional opportunity for the user to interact with the information being provided.  Again, the advantage (and the necessity) of online communication methods is that they lessen the need to constrain users to a long-form, text-dominant information-conveying method that poorly fits how many people best gain and retain information.  A brief survey gives participants a different, more active way to interact with the information being presented, and may help increase understanding.
  • They provide a means by which agency staff can evaluate whether important content is being conveyed effectively.  Crafted carefully, a brief survey asking for responses to the information that the site provides can help determine whether content needs to be tweaked or if a graphic is not being interpreted as intended.
  •  They provide a small measure of humanizing the process.  As we have noted previously, one of the problems with relying on a Telling strategy for public engagement is that it does not build a sense of trust or common purpose with members of the public, which becomes necessary when one is trying to address a difficult or costly challenge, or engage the private sector in addressing public needs, or lessen angry or hostile behavior in the public arena.   A small amount of Asking could begin to crack the sense of Us vs Them, especially if this small act in itself represents a divergence from business as usual.

As we discussed in Chapter 3, however, one of the greatest risks to effective public engagement (online or off) is the hypocritical effort – the one that claims that the public’s input is valued and honored and important, but which then ignores the public’s input in the recommendations and shunts it into an obscure appendix to the final report.  Not only does this kind of fake public engagement make participants angry, but it reinforces distrust of governments and agencies and public participation initiatives, and sets the groundwork for future drawn-out, ugly confrontations between public sector officials who fear the public’s anger and members of the public who believe that they will be steamrolled unless they react loudly and vehemtly.  Since we see on the national and international stage, as well as locally, the damage that this confrontational mind-set has been creating, it is crucial that even a Telling-focused public engagement initiative strive to avoid making this situation any worse.

As a result, if you plan to incorporate a brief survey or other Asking-type activity into your online information reporting, make certain that you do not Ask about anything that the project and the public engagement efforts cannot deliver.  A “What do you want to see here?” question is inappropriate in a project whose public engagement efforts are limited to Telling, because if there is no possibility that the public’s feedback will be considered in the solution (for example, the site physically cannot support a building due to its unstable soils or flood risk), then asking a question that allows for something that cannot happen is not reponsible public engagement.

Instead, surveys or feedback questions in a Telling context should be limited to issues where public feedback can actually be used.  Questions such as “what was the most important thing to you about the Floodplain section?” or “Was there anything in the Soils section that surprised you?” would both give you a sense of the public’s priorities and allow you to assess whether they are understanding the information correctly without creating unfair expectations of influence over the results of the process.

For this reason, and because the purpose of a brief survey or question in a Telling context is in part to create a new opportunity for viewers to interact with the content, such mini-surveys should not be open-ended, but should be formatted as a radio button multiple choice, a ranking of three to five brief items, or another simple response activity.  While even the most diehard Telling online engagement initiative should allow open commenting somewhere on the site, written comments here will again create the mistaken impression that a higher level of public engagement is desired.  Again, the point here is certainly not that public engagement should be limited, but that if the project leadership or agency is unwilling or unable to accommodate more open public engagement, enabling limited feedback opportunities is preferable to creating expectations that the agency does not intend to keep.

How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 1)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  


Most Telling public engagement focuses on conveying information to a general public audience.  For in-person public engagement, Telling typically tends to take the form of lecture-style presentations illustrated with slides of maps and bullet points, accompanied by printed handouts that may be one-page summaries or simply print-outs of the presentation.  In an online context, Telling public engagement often consists of text descriptions, PDFs of reports (or the same slildes as were shown at the public meeting), maps, etc.

Both the online- and offline versions of this type of Telling public engagement may meet the project or legal minimum requirements of making the factual information available, but they do so poorly and in a manner that few people are likely to consume or make sense of. Not only do poor Telling methods negate the intent of the engagement (building awareness and understanding of the facts, options, analysis etc. surrounding a public need),  but they can create additional suspicion or distrust on the part of the public, which may believ that the agency is intentionally trying to make the information difficult to understand. This tendency may be likely to increase as people become accustomed to more sophisticated and visual presentations of information from media sources and marketers.

The reasons why this style of Telling public engagement is particularly ineffective in online public engagement stems from many of the issues we discussed in Chapter 3: established knowledge about how people learn and deal with information; changes in communication technology and users’ assumptions resulting from the rise of digital media; and the increasing diversity of the participants that we need to include in public processes.  These and other trends indicate the increasing ineffectiveness of lecture-based in-person public engagement, as well as long-form written communications in a digital format.

Good Telling public engagement is crucial to any public project and to any public engagement effort that intends to build higher level engagement, since we increasingly strive to understand existing conditions and project considerations in a comprehensive manner and seek to avoid creating the kinds of inintended negative impacts that public projects have too often engendered.  As a result, every online public engagement strategy, whether primarily focused on Telling or endeavoring to build a base of knowledge to enable a different kind of engagement, needs to convey relevant project information in a format that will be fully accessible to viewers in a digital format.  Here are some specific tactics to consider:

Text designed for internet consumption.  Recent studies back up what many of us have discovered in our own lives: reading long blocks of text in a digital format is for many people a more difficult and less appealing task than reading the same length of text in a book or other printed material.  Online format readers have been consistently shown to favor short pieces (hence Medium’s decision to estimate reading time on entries), concise statements and short paragraphs, and they have less compunction than print readers about leaving a passage of text before finishing it if the passage does not seem to promise a payoff proportionate to its length.  While some writers trained in more traditional formats may grumble that this trend reflects a lack of attention span, it could be alternatively interpreted as a sign that readers have higher expectations for clarity and directness, and less tolerance for impersonal passive language, florid showing off, or inability to get to the point than they may have had in generations past.  In either case, however, the public agency’s tendency to long, abstract, jargon-filled prose fits about as badly with an online format as an Elizabethan philosophical diatribe.

To present written information effectively in an online format, one should:

  • Write in short paragraphs, typically less than four sentences, and often as short as one.
  • Avoid the typical impersonal bureaucrat voice (“The City believes that”) in favor of sounding like a collection of humans (“We believe that”)
  • Avoid the passive tense (“the schedule has been set”) and use the active tense (“We set the schedule”)
  • Avoid jargon or, if a certain technical term is necessary, define it — not in a footnote or in an appendix, but in a call-out text box next to the paragraph where the word occurs, or in a “hover” box that appears when the reader places the cursor over the word and then vanishes when the cursor moves away.
  • Organize the information that you need to share with the public in the style of an journalist’s inverted pyramid, not the way you would write a traditional report. Journalists put the most important information into the first paragraph of the story – the lead paragraph gives the overview of the subject matter, an explanation of its importance, and any other critical information, and then subsequent paragraphs fill in details that add to the basic understanding that was established in the first paragraph.  The farther down the page you read in a traditional journalist’s article, the less crucial the information is to understanding the topic (this is because editors who have page or word count constraints will typically cut from the bottom). Place only the first section of information on the site’s landing page or at the top, most visible and accessible level of the site, and make that page the parent to the sections that contain less immediately relevant details.
  • Limit each section to no more than one-half to one traditional word processed page (150 to 300 words).  Given that you are using shorter paragraphs than you may have been taught to use in school, your online sections may consist of only two to three short paragraphs.
  • Cull the information to be included to the minumum needed to comprehend the topic.  If the topic is complex or potentially controversial, give the high-level information in the first-level overview and then provide hyperlinks to more detailed explanations, background information, etc.
  • Use hyperlinks generously.  Online readers do not typically navigate a site linearly, and a statement in one section may trigger the reader to want to re-read a previous section, or reference a map, or jump to a deeper explanation, or review a reference source outside of your site.  The purpose of a hyperlink is to decrease friction in accessing the desired information, so you will be best served to make the entire collection of information as free of friction as possible.
  • Do not post PDFs, unless it is of background materials that only a few people may want to study, or if you have something that you would like people to be able to print for themselves, such as a poster announcing an upcoming event.
  • Wherever possible, embed visual materials that enhance, elaborate or illustrate the topic within the text.  This not only breaks up the text and makes it less daunting to the reader, but it also enables viewers to interact with the information in different ways that may be more useful for certain viewers.  As we discussed previously, only a very small proportion of the population learns best through written text; most people retain information better when it is presented visually or in ways that allow them to interact with it.



A tool kit (of sorts) for working with your local government: from CoStarters Summit.

One of the talk/workshops that I’ve done many times in many different time zones is designed to help local government and nonprofit people understand how small businesses and entrepreneurs are different from the larger businesses that they are used to dealing with, and how they can address those businesses’ very different needs (spoiler alert: you have to do different things, too).

Last week, I had an interesting opportunity to turn that discussion inside out. I was invited to conduct a workshop at the Co.Starters Summit in Chattanooga, Tennessee to help small business people and organizations learn how to work more effectively with local governments and old-line nonprofits, like Chambers of Commerce.  Inverting your own content like that is a strange experience — it’s like finding a new way to assemble the crossword puzzle.  But unlike most of my cram-the-puzzle-piece-into-the-hole-to-see-if-it-fits experiences, this one actually worked.

If you don’t know Co.Starters, you probably should.  Born out of Chattanooga’s innovation and start-up cauldron, Co.Starters created a series of curriculum for fostering small-scale entrepreneurship in situations ranging from craftspeople to historically disinvested neighborhoods to high school students and people interested in launching social good organizations.  I’ll be writing more about the approach as soon as I can, but the key features are a training program (similar to many small business launch strategies) coupled with a strong emphasis on peer learning and building a community of entrepreneurs who can support and help each other.  If you don’t deal regularly with small business and entrepreneurs, that can sound fluffy, but if you do, then you probably realize how critical that support is to entrepreneurial success, especially among people who don’t come from money, connections, or a long line of entrepreneurs in their family. In many cases, the training (“here’s how to write a business plan!) is the easy part, and often ineffective on its own.

But back to the inside-out workshop: the people who participated came from several small business accelerators and support organizations, along with a few nonprofits, a couple of university-based small business programs, and a few others.  Rather than set up a conversation-killing PowerPoint, I decided to simply have a conversation, and based the conversation on a summary sheet that CoStarters asked trainers to develop as a means of giving everyone an easy-to-use takeaway.  You can download the summary sheet from this workshop right here:

Summit Share Model Rucker Local Gov

My thanks again to CoStarters for a mind-blowing visit with a whole assortment of people doing awesome stuff.  If you want to learn more about them, check out Costarters.co. 

Bite sized thought: walkable (like many things) is in the eye is the beholder

Monday I wrote about how false binary distinctions (this is right, that is wrong) block our ability to talk insightfully, and thus deal intelligently, with the complexities of real life situations– and how this is particularly problematic for people who try to make communities (about the most complex things we have) better. 

Yesterday, I asked my son a pretty simple question: “do you think we live in a walkable neighborhood?”

He gave me one of those how-can-you-possibly-be-that-dense looks that 13 years olds can deliver like no one else.

“Of course we have a walkable neighborhood.  I walk around here all the time.  There’s people out walking dogs every time you look.  How often do we complain about our dog barking at people walking by?”

For my question to make sense, you have to know something about the neighborhood that we moved into 16 years ago when we first came to Cincinnati– before this kid was born. He’s never lived anywhere else.

The view from my home office looks like this:


Yes. Single family houses, big yards, curving roads, no sidewalks. 

A colleague of mine, who did grad school after I did, tells me with wide eyes that his studio did a walkability study of this very neighborhood, and concluded that it was Not Walkable.

Who’s right? And more importantly, what do we lose, what understanding or insight about how people actually use neighborhoods so we completely miss, when we paint the whole range of places where people live into those black and white categories?

How does not understanding, and worse, not attempting to understand the full range of dimensions of how people actually live in real life and interact with physical spaces, hamstring out ability to actually create and a support spaces that will support the complexity of human communities?

Binary is easy.  Mine good, yours bad, is easy.  But binary blinds. And we can’t afford to be blind anymore.

Even a 13 year old knows that.

Quick thought: walkable (like many things) is in the eye is the beholder

Monday I wrote about how false binary distinctions (this is right, that is wrong) block our ability to talk insightfully, and thus deal intelligently, with the complexities of real life situations– and how this is particularly problematic for people who try to make communities (about the most complex things we have) better. 

Yesterday, I asked my son a pretty simple question: “do you think we live in a walkable neighborhood?”

He gave me one of those how-can-you-possibly-be-that-dense looks that 13 years olds can deliver like no one else.

“Of course we have a walkable neighborhood.  I walk around here all the time.  There’s people out walking dogs every time you look.  How often do we complain about our dog barking at people walking by?”

For my question to make sense, you have to know something about the neighborhood that we moved into 16 years ago when we first came to Cincinnati– before this kid was born. He’s never lived anywhere else.

The view from my home office looks like this:


Yes. Single family houses, big yards, curving roads, no sidewalks. 

A colleague of mine, who did grad school after I did, tells me with wide eyes that his studio did a walkability study of this very neighborhood, and concluded that it was Not Walkable.

Who’s right? And more importantly, what do we lose, what understanding or insight about how people actually use neighborhoods so we completely miss, when we paint the whole range of places where people live into those black and white categories?

How does not understanding, and worse, not attempting to understand the full range of dimensions of how people actually live in real life and interact with physical spaces, hamstring out ability to actually create and a support spaces that will support the complexity of human communities?

Binary is easy.  Mine good, yours bad, is easy.  But binary blinds. And we can’t afford to be blind anymore.

Even a 13 year old knows that.

Quick thought: walkable in the eye is the beholder

Monday I wrote about how false binary distinctions (this is right, that is wrong) block our ability to talk insightfully, and thus deal intelligently, with the complexities of real life situations– and how this is particularly problematic for people who try to make communities (about the most complex things we have) better. 

Yesterday, I asked my son a pretty simple question: “do you think we live in a walkable neighborhood?”

He gave me one of those how-can-you-possibly-be-that-dense looks that 13 years olds can deliver like no one else.

“Of course we have a walkable neighborhood.  I walk around here all the time.  There’s people out walking dogs every time you look.  How often do we complain about our dog barking at people walking by?”

For my question to make sense, you have to know something about the neighborhood that we moved into 16 years ago when we first came to Cincinnati– before this kid was born. He’s never lived anywhere else.

The view from my home office looks like this:


Yes. Single family houses, big yards, curving roads, no sidewalks. 

A colleague of mine, who did grad school after I did, tells me with wide eyes that his studio did a walkability study of this very neighborhood, and concluded that it was Not Walkable.

Who’s right? And more importantly, what do we lose, what understanding or insight about how people actually use neighborhoods so we completely miss, when we paint the whole range of places where people live into those black and white categories?

How does not understanding, and worse, not attempting to understand the full range of dimensions of how people actually live in real life and interact with physical spaces, hamstring out ability to actually create and a support spaces that will support the complexity of human communities?

Binary is easy.  Mine good, yours bad, is easy.  But binary blinds. And we can’t afford to be blind anymore.

Even a 13 year old knows that.

Bite sized thought: the binary trap

I wonder a lot about why it’s so damn hard to make effective change in communities.  I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, but some of the hardest to crack are inside our own heads.

One that’s been particularly bothering me lately is our tendency to think of everything as binary- yes and no, Choice A or Choice B, no options, no middle, no other.  A project is a success or a failure, even if one day we will see it as an important stepping stone to something else.  A victim is either a martyred saint or “they had it coming,” even if the thing that made them less than a saint is quite minor. A city or neighborhood undergoing revitalization is a scary place or a rich guy’s shiny play thing. Black hats and white hats.

It’s damaging enough when we attach these kinds of playground stereotypes to people, to political parties, etc.  It might be even more damaging when we attach them to cities and communities– the complex places where we live and work together. 

The greatest damage binary thinking does to communities is that it threatens to stop us in our tracks. It freezes us. If anything we do is either good or bad, who wants to try anything new for fear of turning out to be the Bad?

We all know in our guts that most real world situations are spectrums, sliding patterns, relative degrees of one thing or another. Especially when it comes to cities and neighborhoods, with their interplay of people and fixed places and things that move through them.  Everything changes, and if we’re prudent, we’ll accept that and work within that context.

But far too often, despite that gut-knowledge, we default to the binary.  Black hats for you, white hats for us.  Or we let our politicians, or reporters, or our neighborhood leaders, hack the real world back to a black and white cartoon.  Because it’s easier that way, it gets votes, supporters. Complex stories don’t make the front page, they tell us (even though there isn’t much of a front page any more).

And when we let that happen, we pin one (or both) of our arms behind our back.  We out our own shackles on our feet, because not only can we not see the whole picture, we can’t use the whole range of options either.

In community work, true binary choices don’t usually exist. We have to shift to seeing ranges, spectrums, shades, nuances. 

Like we do in real life.

Two chances to support better entrepreneur/government relations at SXSW 2016

The international tech mega-conference South By Southwest Interactive has been showing more and more interest in how small businesses, startups and tech entrepreneurs can help make the places where they work better – but even though conference organizers pretty clearly want to address the relationship between startups and governments, they seem to get only a few submissions for panels or presentations on those topics.

Well, here at the Wise Economy Workshop, we’re all about helping people rattle those kinds of cages.

I’ve submitted two presentations along these lines for consideration at next year’s SXSW, and as is their usual practice, part of how they choose submissions depends on popular votes.  That’s where you come in.

Here’s the two sessions:

The first is a panel entitled How to work with your local government and succeed.  This session is geared toward entrepreneurs and startup folks who are newly encountering the world of government agencies – and not understanding why they work the way they do.

The second is a workshop called Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups.  This session is a version of the talk/workshop that I have given in several states and online over the past few years, and it’s focused on helping city officials and staff rethink their economic development efforts to make a real difference in growing their community’s local economy.

The odds of either of these two sessions being presented go up if they get votes on the SXSW PanelPicker.  Voting is free and easy (it does require a very basic signup), and you don’t have to be planning to go to SXSW in order to vote.

You can vote for How to work with your local government and succeed here, and Lead or Feed: How Cities Can Truly Help Startups here.

Thanks for your help!  I’ll let you know what happens.

If you’d be interested in talks or trainings like this in your community or for your organization, just send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com


New Short Shot: The Secrets of Retail District Revitalization

I’m delighted to announce that the first in a new series I am calling Short Shots is on the street and available for you!  This brief, illustrated publication(this one is about 30 pages) functions like a quick, enjoyable, easy-to-read exploration of a topic, with pages that you can easily remove and share independent from the rest of it – for example, if you need to make a quick argument to a mayor or council member about how to do something. It’s more detailed than a blog post, but a much faster read than a book.  And easy on the wallet as well!

A Short Shot is a term used in manufacturing.  When you make a bottle or other container out of plastic or something like that you typically “blow” a small amount of the molten material into a mold.  If you do it right, the materials flattens out in a thin layer against the mold, and you have a container with an air space in the middle.  Of course, if you think about that very hard you can imagine all kinds of things going wrong – material is too thick, too much of it, doesn’t spread out right, etc.  And if you’re running a machine that makes a few thousand of these an hour, you have to make sure it’s right before you push the start button.  So a short shot is basically a test mold, one that you use to quickly and inexpensively see if a new idea is going to work.

I love that image, because I think of these Short Shots as a way for you to quickly and easily explore new ideas, without having to put them on that thick”reading list” of books that you know you should read, but …  Short Shot Business District Revitalization cover

This first one is on The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization — it explores why some of the big ticket projects we put into our downtowns and other commercial areas didn’t make the difference we hoped for, and it looks at the challenge of making these districts work better from a whole different perspective – the local business owners.  If you’re looking for new solutions to making your commercial districts work better, and if you want to help your small business people become more successful, I think you’ll find this worth the very little effort it requires.

The Secrets of Commercial District Revitalization and all the rest of the Short Shots will be available in all of the places where you get your digital Wise Fool Press publications — Amazon Kindle, Square Market and now Gumroad, which works for those of you outside of the USA who haven’t been able to use the Square Market.  If you need print versions, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com and we’ll make it work.

This Short Shot and most of the upcoming ones are based on talks and trainings that I have done over the years, so if you’re looking for a presentation for an upcoming event, just let me know.

Here’s a sample inside page:

Short Shot Retail revitalization

New Approach and Statewide Reach: Go Code Colorado Builds a New Way to Do Civic Tech

I ran this interview at EngagingCities last month, talking about Go Code Colorado — a great initiative that combines elements of a hackathon and an entrepreneurship accelerator — and statewide, no less — to develop innovative technology solutions to the state’s information and service needs.

It’s a pretty awesome program, and I’m looking forward to hearing this year’s results in a few weeks.  In the meantime, read this interview and see what you can apply.  You might learn about growing new ideas, building on your very own data to get businesses going, using the information you already have to make your services better, or something else.  Enjoy!

To Build an Entrepreneurial Community, Listen to the Entrepreneurs – from Tech.Co

While I was at South By Southwest Interactive last week, the tech news and event platform Tech.Co very kindly invited me to come in and do a video interview.  I love Tech.Co and its folks because they do such an excellent job of not only documenting emerging trends in technology nationwide, but of also exploring how technology ecosystems work and how they can be better fostered.

I was particularly impressed with how Tech.Co reporter Ronald Barba pulled the sense and theme of what I’ve been thinking about out of what I said — better than I said it myself:

And, according to her, what they’re finding at EngagingCities is that there’s an overall higher emphasis on communities nowadays; people want to connect across different kinds of industries, across different tech sectors, and want to get involved in many different ways. This has really contributed to a kind of organic growth of several ecosystems.

Policymakers, however, can help push that growth further, and enables people to turn the ecosystems in which they live into their preferred kind of community. These policymakers can’t make that happen, though, when they’re the only ones developing the plans for these new communities. In order for a tech community to fully develop, legislators need to actually listen to the demands of those tech entrepreneurs.

I think good listening and community-building is actually more of a two-way street, and that in a lot of places the most robust tech startup communities are the ones that are also bringing new solutions and new energy to addressing bigger community problems.  But I’m often surprised at the kinds of assumptions we sometimes make about what “those tech people” need to thrive in our community, and how often we don’t get into meaningful conversations with them about how to really catalyze those emerging opportunities.  As I’ve said in the Small Business Ecosystem talk that I do fairly regularly, both parts of the equation need to understand each other — and flexibly lead or feed the ecosystem, based on what it needs and who is available to do it.

You can read the summary article here, and watch the video below:




Look What You Can’t Get Away With Anymore: A Case Study on Economic Development Incentives

But the deal was approved with no opportunity for public vetting, and even now Mason leaders either can’t or won’t answer this key question: How much will new P&G employees net the city in income taxes? Without knowing the answer to that question we don’t know how long it will be before the income offsets the benefits Mason is giving P&G.

Economic packages are the the cost of attracting new development in the current global business climate – but communities must go into them with all of the facts, and it’s not at all clear that Mason did.

–“Questions remain on Mason incentives” From the Editorial Board, Cincinnati Enquirer (http://www.cincinnati.com/story/opinion/editorials/2015/03/19/questions-still-unanswered-incentives/25013003/)


I debated hard about whether to write about this one.

I have two problems:  First, the town in this story is close to where I live, and I know some of the city staff members.  Second, my husband is with P&G.  He has worked at this facility in the past and will probably work there again in the future.  And I will be the first to say, from long personal experience, that this company does a consistently better job of corporate citizenship that almost any multinational company you will encounter.

But.  There’s a crucial cautionary tale here, and it’s one that neither you nor your electeds can afford to ignore.

First, note the level of scrutiny being given to the deal by the newspaper, and coming from no less than its Editorial Board.  From where I sit, an editorial from this historically conservative publication criticizing a local incentive deal is unusual enough.  To give that attention to an incentive deal in a suburban community is even stranger (if you know Greater Cincinnati, you know that Mason is an major suburb, but it’s still a suburb).  Like most old-line newspapers, the Enquirer usually focuses on the center city and pays relatively less attention to the suburbs.  On top of that, this paper has been historically sympathetic to most of Greater Cincinnati’s big businesses, including P&G.

I think it’s an important indicator of how the general public (and press) perception of incentives is changing. Prior to 2008, when this surburb was the hot spot of the fastest-growing county in Ohio, when revenues for places like this seemed destined for long-term growth, I doubt anyone at the Enquirer or anywhere else would have given this deal a whole lot of thought.  Certainly not enough to schedule a phone conference with the editorial staff.  But even though Mason’s overall desirability in the region is still extremely high, a broad zeitgeist of strained budgets and future budget uncertainty has shifted general attention more intensively onto a spot that would have sat largely in the shadows a few years ago.

If a historically conservative masthead is raking a suburban community over the coals for an incentives deal involving one of the region’s favorite corporate citizens, what’s the likelihood that your incentive deal will sneak past your professional media — or the amateur muck-rakers in your town who have much more of an axe to grind and might have fewer professional qualms about laying into you?  Our incentive deals were maybe not newsworthy when we were all flush with money, but now the kleig light has been turned squarely on us.  You might survive the scrutiny, but you’re probably going to take some bullets in the process.

Second, note what happens when the mayor tries to work around the information that he does not have.  Although his points are probably reasonable assumptions with regard to the spin-off impacts from moving a lot of high paying jobs to this facility, he has nothing to go off of except his assumptions.  And not surprisingly, it doesn’t go well.

Developing relatively solid, numerical estimates of the costs and benefits of a deal like this isn’t rocket science. You don’t need an economics professor or a REMI model or a consulting budget that requires a bonding issue.  You can probably do a reasonably good job with a pen and paper and a high school diploma.  In fact, that’s probably a better approach than the usual black box impact study because you and everyone looking at it can understand what you’re doing.  But regardless, you cannot get away anymore with not doing the math.

If this is new territory for you, check out Elaine Harpel’s Smart Incentives for a good grounding and sound policy and process guidance.  You can also take a look here and here for my take on incentives, which is also in the Local Economy Revolution book.

I wish Mason well, and I hope that they can use this as a catalyst to help their bright minds prepare for scrutiny next time.  But this should set off some warning bells for all of you:

Do the math and be prepared to talk about it.  Because you will probably have to.
Oh, and if anyone knows how I can make sure that my husband ends up in an office where his cell phone actually gets reception after he moves there, would you let me know?

Meet and Mentor with EngagingCities Managing Editor (um, that’s me) at SXSWi

I posted this at EngagingCities yesterday.  Right now I have slots available in Austin, so if you’re going, come visit me!


Are you or someone you know trying to start a civic technology business?  A social enterprise?  Interested in exploring how you might be able to leverage tech to move the needle on big issues? Or just a technology/policy wonk?

Also, are you or they going to South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)?

If you said yes, join EngagingCities’ Managing Editor Della Rucker for a Mentor Session on Saturday, March 13.  These sessions are informal one-on-one discussions designed to give you a valuable connection and some quick insight on a business or idea you’re working on – no matter what stage you’re at.

Mentor sessions do require RSVPs. and you have to be attending SXSWi.  If you are, you can sign up for Della’s mentoring session here.

If you’re not attending the conference but you will be in town and want to chat, just tag her on Twitter –  @dellarucker.

I’ve done lots of mentoring, but never a SXSW event before.  I’m hoping to meet many of our readers and get to spend some thinking time with you!

Marketing Detroit (and other places): the deeper challenge

As I wrote last week, Andy Levine from DCI asked me and a few other economic development professionals to respond to the “Extreme Makeover: Detroit Marketing” challenge, as a part of a post he was preparing for Forbes.com.  I posted the full piece that I had written, on the expectation that Andy would only use a bit of it, and he used more than I expected. Here’s the piece.

As I used to tell my writing workshop students back in my teaching days, the more concrete you make your writing, the better.  So, of course, the part that ends up in the Forbes article includes the oh-so-pretty picture of covering up a nasty scar with a thick application of makeup.  I think we all know how well that trick works…

To my surprise, the Detroit MetroTimes picked up the article, and said:

We particularly like this quote from Della G. Rucker, principal at Wise Economy Workshop:

“I know an extreme makeover sounds appealing. You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right? But it is Detroit’s flaws that make Detroit unique. And real. You can’t hide them anyway. So be honest about them. Strive to address and fix them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious. It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.”

That was nice to see.  Thanks, folks.

But as I look at it again, I’m struggling even harder with the basic premise:

Is Detroit “the toughest sell in America,”as Andy said?  Well. maybe, possibly — if you’re talking only about the largest US cities, and you’re talking about marketing that city to everyone, everywhere.  And that’s what he probably meant (Forbes doesn’t want to run War and Peace, after all).

I would argue that Detroit already has a hell of a brand, a whopper of a marketing presence — at least in certain circles, among people who are attuned to what Detroit has to offer.  For crying out loud, I can’t go a week anymore without someone trying to tell me about Shinola, the Detroit-based watch manufacturer that completely bases its own branding on the Detroit Brand.

Now, caveat emptor: I live in the next-door state to Detroit, my husband is a product of the Detroit suburbs, I visit southwest Michigan pretty regularly, and I pay closer attention to Rust Belt and city revitalization and all those kinds of stories than the average joe.  So I might be a little too close to the situation to see what EveryOne Else in the world sees in Detroit.  And that powerful “brand” might be a niche thing, like a Shinola watch, and it might not have enough supporters to support the level of market presence that its population size and its physical scale needs to be sustainable.

But… Detroit most definitely has a brand, an it’s a powerful one.  Detroit right now is this collection of amazing, compelling, incredible stories…some hopeful, some tragic, many unresolved.  All powerful.

It’s a place that, even at the lower level where these stories have been finding their voice, you can see people of all types and of all backgrounds…resonating to it.  Responding to it.  Relating to it.

In a sense, the Detroit Story, writ large, is like a sweeping cinematic experience that pulls you in from the opening scene and then you can’t bring yourself to get up to go to the bathroom or get your popcorn out of the microwave.  Of course, the incredible and often cruel struggles that many Detroit residents face aren’t entertainment, and it’s crucial to the future of the city and the country that their situations improve, by a lot.

Think about the power, the emotional pull, of a place where people are fighting and trying and sometimes failing and rising with determination again.  Consumer goods use all kinds of tactics to tease an emotional response out of us.  For cryin out loud, they use lost puppies to sell beer and teddy bears to sell toilet paper.

Why?  Because we, all of us, make spending decisions based on our emotional response, in addition to logic.  Doesn’t matter what our income level, education level, self-importance level is. Otherwise, all marketing would consist of press releases.

Detroit doesn’t have to manufacture emotional response.  Detroit has it.  In bucketfuls. And I assure you, it’s more intoxicating than any mega-brew.

That’s why I said that a city that faces challenges like those Detroit has needs to own its flaws.  That history, that striving, even the striving among the wreckage, that’s what makes a place real.

We have so many Botoxed cities, pretty spin jobs, places that are desperately trying to invent overnight the kind of real-ness that Detroit and Cleveland and Milwaukee and their neighbors have.  Because they can see that when people only choose you because you’re cheap and you require little effort, they don’t have any reason to build the emotional connection that compels them to make a real investment.  They can see that because they’re living with it now.

So… I don’t think Detroit is a hard sell.  Detroit has pride.  Detroit has determination.  Detroit has a past and a present and a future that are complex, and messy, and unpredictable, and interesting. And it’s a place where a person, a business, would have a fairly decent chance of being part of building something that they can truly care about.  And Cleveland, and Buffalo, and Mansfield, and Elyria, and South Bend, and Rockford… you can pick the flavor that suits you best, but if you want a place you can sink your teeth into, I can show you several dozen.

Marketing, traditionally, was about razzle-dazzling you into thinking Product A was the answer to all your needs. After a hundred years or more of traditional marketing, it’s pretty clear that the bloom is long off that rose.  Marketers of all types are desperately trying to convert from flash to relationship building.  And if you have a relationship with someone or some place, that means that you care about it.

I’d say that for marketing Detroit, and other Rust Belt cities, the time has come.  You have the kind of product to sell that a lot of people are looking for.  So the real task, and the focus of your marketing, is actually pretty simple:

Start spreading the news.

City Botox or Own Your City’s Flaws?

The awesome Andy Levine from DCI asked me to contribute to one of his new regular serioes of articles for Forbes magazine. He asked me and a handful of other people about our recommendations for an Extreme Makeover for Detroit.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not trained as a marketer or a branding wizard, but I’ve spent enough years around the amazing cluster of those bright minds in Cincinnati that I guess I have learned a few things.  And, of course, I have a soft spot for Detroit as a sister Rust Belt city.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of dolling a place up and trying to make it something it’s not

Since I’m assuming that Andy will only use a bit of what I wrote for him, I’ll share the whole thing here.

Hi, Detroit.  I’ve known you for a long time. I’m from the neighborhood.  And I think you’re great. But yes, the last few years — all right, decades — have been tough on you.

I know an Extreme Makeover sounds appealing.  You spend a lot of money, you get a brand new fantastic look, right?  We do that with houses… and people… all the time.  At least on TV.

But we know in our guts that Grandma was right: looks can be deceiving.  And we’ve been burned too many times by cities pulling glossy bait-and-switches. My hometown of Cleveland can tell you all about that. We can all see when it’s fake, now more than ever.

Your flaws make you unique. And real.  And you can’t hide them anyways.  So be honest about them.  Fix them, strive to address them, but own them. Trying to hide them, when everyone and their mother knows they’re there, just makes them all the more obvious.  It’s like putting a heavy layer of pancake makeup over a big scar — it might look better from a distance, but when you get close enough to connect, the caked mess says more about you than the actual flaw does.

The Detroit Homecoming that you all did last year… That was brilliant. The fact that you matter to important people who have made their name somewhere else gives you the kind of endorsement many marketers would commit felonies to get.

That’s meaningful. That’s powerful. That’s real. Do more of it, and publicize it.

Consumer marketing people say, “your brand is your promise.” Effective marketing isn’t about trying to be everything to everyone.  Effective marketing is about finding and connecting with your tribe — with the people who want what you can honestly promise.

The real question isn’t, how surface pretty we can make you or how much City Botox we can inject. The real question is, how do we show the world who you are and what you are striving to be. Because what you need, what we all need, is to be known and understood by the people who can love us.

A partial reading list for economic development professionals

My good friend Darrin Wasniewski, who leads the Wisconsin Main Street program, sent Ed Morrison and I a tweet Friday asking us for recommendations for good books for economic development types.  Ed, in his typical masterly fashion, had this list already prepared — and it’s got some goodies on it.

Here’s some books that I would add:

Rise of the Entrepreneurial State, by Peter Eisigner.  This is a relatively old book — published in 1988 — but it does a better job than anything else I can think of with regard to unpacking and elucudating the differences between traditional supply-side economic growth approaches and the more proactive demand-side model.  It’s been more than 15 years since I read this, and I still find its premises foundational, even if you have to be a little careful taking the 1980s examples as completely contemporary. It’s an academic book, so not a light read, but worth the effort.  Plus, bonus for Darrin – it was published by University of Wisconsin Press!

Locavesting, by Amy Cortese Ed’s list includes several books about the maker revolution, the power of local markets, entrepreneurship, etc.  Locavesting is one of very few sources that I have encountered that outlines how the forces that enable local markets — social media reach, micro-making, etc. — can also be used to catalyze meaningful economic growth by using crowdfunding to fill the gaps in funding options that banks and conventional economic development organizations don’t fill.  The author is a journalist, so a relatively direct and information-loaded work, pretty accessible and not academic.  The only caveat is that the book was written shortly after a federal law enabling crowdfunded investing came into being, and if you’ve dealt with the travails and bureaucratic ugliness surrounding this issue since that time, you will read many of the examples more ruefully than was intended.  But it’s the best overview out there of all of the possible ways crowdfunding can be used, and I do strongly believe it will become part of the normal course of events all over, eventually.  It’s just taking a lot longer in some places than we expected it to in 2012.

The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  By…uh… me.  I would normally think it’s a little tacky to list your own book in a reading list for others, unless it’s a class syllabus or something, but I’m putting it here for a simple reason: I wrote it because I could see deep changes, crucial changes, developing that threatened to have an incredibly profound impact on how we do economic development and a whole range of the other work that touches communities, and… I could find bits and pieces in other books, but not the whole picture the way I thought people who deal with communities needed to be thinking about it.  Plus, a lot of what I could find was written in academic, or business-y, or generally dry and boring verbage.  I wanted something that people would read and grapple with, not just because it said things that they needed, but because it said things that people needed in a manner that was actually enjoyable to read.  Based on what reviews it has gotten, I think it does both of those.

AntiFragile, by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.  I have mixed feelings about this one — Taleb’s writing voice is very personal, but the person who comes across struck me as arrogant and prickly.  And in some places it felt to me like it bogged down in the examples.  But Taleb’s re-framing of what risk actually is — and his analysis of structures like those that economic developers typically use as “fragile,” and thus prone to unpredictable cataclysmic breaks — should be a core lesson for anyone who deals in policy and strategy-setting.  Taleb’s alternative — strategies that hedge bets and mitigate risks — are a little harder to translate into economic development work, but I think we need to figure out how to do that.  We just haven’t fully developed it yet.

The New Capitalist Manifesto, by Umair Hacque.  Hacque is one of my favorite contemporary writers — his writing voice is so clear, so personal, so powerful, that it’s just a plain delight to read, despite the pretty deep topic.  The title’s radical-ness is a bit tongue in cheek, because what Hacque does is examine some of the profound changes in how the most successful businesses have worked over the past 10 years, and demonstrates how their successes reflect core, foundational shifts in what it takes for a business to operate successfully.  It’s related in that respect to books like Agile Innovation and Start-Up communities, but it’s not just a case of someone telling you cool stories.  New Capitalist Manifesto, and its follow-up, Betterness, are the kinds of works that take apart those stories and guide you through the deep structure of why and how they actually work.

The last two books that I’m going to recommend aren’t typically economic development books — they’re books about the decision-making strategies and failures that seem to get us into trouble, in economic development and in other kinds of work.  As I spent a lot of time on in the first part of my book, a lot of what gets us in trouble is that we make decisions about our communities by basically the same seat-of-the-pants methods that we learned as kids.  And that means that we often set ourselves up for failure.

My total favorite book on this topic has the highly poetic name of The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations.  The author’s name is Dietrich Dorner, and the book was originally published in German in 1989.  Despite the title and the fact that the author is a psychology researcher, the book is a surprisingly accessible read, and the very concrete examples he uses (several of which involve simulations of economic development policy decisions!) will open your eyes to the decision-making shortcuts that we (and our organizations, and our communities) often make, and that lead to many of our failures.  I have never seen this one on anyone else’s reading list, but I can no longer imagine thinking about decision-making without it.

The last one is Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise.  I am only about a sixth of the way through that one, but it’s holding out some hope of being as illuminating as Dorner’s book.

One final thought: one of the challenges of books is that they take a long time to produce, and they’re fundamentally static– It’s hard to change them once they are published.  A lot of what I am seeing and dealing with in economic development and related fields these days is so fluid as to verge on amorphous.  I think books remain crucial for the kinds of paradigm-shifting, deep analysis, big thinking that we urgently need to do in an era of such fluid change, but I’m more acutely aware now more than ever of a books limitations, as I continue to work on a could of new ones of my own.

We have lots of book clubs.  Has anyone ever had a blog club, or a tweet club, where the members share the truly bleeding-edge ideas that haven’t found their way into longform yet?  If you have, please let me know.  I’m curious.

No more lipstick on the pig: community branding and marketing from smart people (plus, me)

Last week, right as I was marching off into a string of conference gigs, my esteemed friend Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America launched this impressive E-book full of community marketing and branding advice from the brightest names in economic development marketing… and me, for some reason.

Given Ed’s undisputed marketing pedigree and the experience of many of the other folks Ed reached out to for this project, I was glad that I could add to the conversation.  I don’t typically think of myself as a marketing or branding specialist – most of what I know about those topics has come from years working with some of the brightest minds in the consumer marketing and branding world.

But because I work so closely with emerging issues in communities, technology and communication, I had something to contribute, after all.

You should read the whole e-book — and, if you don’t already do so, follow Ed for more excellent information on this topic.

To give you a taste, here’s what I submitted.  But I think the most important thing you can take away from this exploration is that, in parlance I learned from P&G marketing wizards, “your brand is your promise.”  It’s not about a pretty picture, it’s about sharing and communicating what your community is about.  And it has to be honest, now more than ever.



Others have talked a lot about authentic-ness, truthfulness, the promise nature of a brand, etc. That’s gospel truth, now more than ever. Branding/marketing of all types has become more about human-ness, real-ness, and relationship, and the demand for that from potential consumers intensifies every year. The more “brands” learn to do that, whether they’re selling shampoo or cars or downtowns, the more the audience that views and judges brands demands that real-ness.

The public’s ability to sniff out what’s fake or dishonest, or just too overly cleaned-up, is increasing at a speed that should leave us all reeling if we think about it.  And the younger the message recipient, the more intense that ability seems to get.

Whatever slight wiggle room we used to have for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone.

pig with lipstick
From “2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com.” No idea where they got it.

And that puts an enormous, and potentially impossible, burden on the usual approach of trying to capture the “essence” of a brand in a logo and a color scheme and a tag line. There has to be much, much more substance and meaning behind it — much more than we in this field have usually bothered to develop, and much more than I suspect most communities typically want to invest in.  Until they realize that they have no choice

The other piece of community branding/marketing that is changing is the expectation among “consumers” (not sure that’s the right word in the community branding context) of not just a two-way conversation, but a relationship.

Look at what’s happening with popular music, the way bands and singers and the like not only share more, but interact more, with their audiences. Fans post stuff about their favorites, and more often than not the singer actually responds. Saul Kaplan had a great piece on Medium last month about Taylor Swift and how she has built this incredible fan base though public responses to individual questions/requests- it’s as close to a personal relationship with a few million people as you can get.

I think people who are in branding and brand management for both consumer goods and places probably don’t really understand how high that bar is rising.

The brand management — the ongoing, organic, situation-specific communication, in lots of little pieces over lots of time, is increasingly what seems to separate the successful brands from those that fall flat. We know and say that people respond to people (or at least personable-ness), and that’s both easier, and harder, than designing a logo or a “brand campaign.”

I still think one of the most potentially cutting-edge models of community branding that I have every seen is the Agenda 360 Story project in Cincinnati. Nick Vehr probably knows the inner workings of that better than I do, but I was so struck by the depth, the meaningfulness, the extendability of that initiative — which, as far as I can remember, didn’t involve a graphic design package at all.

Postscript: Ed chose to call out this line in big orange print:

“Whatever slight wiggle room we had for spinning the story, for putting lipstick on the pig….it’s just about gone..”

Thanks, Ed.

Your Help Needed! Help me continue the discussion about Downtown Las Vegas… in Las Vegas!

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m looking hard these days at the Downtown Project in Las Vegas as a potential new model, and certainly a source of some pretty exciting new ideas, about how to revitalize communities.  That initiative has been getting some national press, but I’ve been frustrated with that because most of what’s been written is either simplistic hero worship/hero failure crap, or focused solely on the tech startup component, which is only one small part of the story.  I’ve been spending as much time there as I can, and reading and following along and trying to understand when I’m not, and I’ve had the huge privilege of developing lovely friendships with some of the folks who are part of that landscape.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project here and here and here, and my plan is to do a slim book trying to make sense of that experience in the context of traditional community revitalization.  I gotta get the current book out of my hair first (a whole ‘nother story), but the Downtown Project one is definitely in the works.

But it’s scary to write about a complex, multi-piece thing when you’re not really a part of it, and I know that I could very easily get it wrong.SXSWv2v logo

That’s where you come in.

The folks who stage South By Southwest have a smaller, tech and media-focused event that they host in Las Vegas during the summer, and I have proposed a talk for that conference that would lay out my findings and give me a chance to get better feedback from the people who are living there every day.  The organizers seem to be interested, but part of their selection criteria is based on a popular vote system.  Which means….

I need votes.

You don’t have to plan to go to SXSWv2v in order to vote.  But you do have to do a very simple sign in before you can vote.

Here’s the link: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/44131.  If you are willing to vote, or leave a comment, or share this link to your friends and cronies, I’ll be very grateful.  But you only have until Friday, January 23!

Come to think of it, that’s my birthday.  Your vote would be a pretty nice present.


Don’t Let the Recovery Fool You – A Mark Barbash Special

I’m delighted to be able to run this article from Mark Barbash, one of Ohio’s finest economic development types.  Mark and I have given talks together, run trainings together, staffed projects together and generally agreed with/argued with each other in lots of places over the last few years.  Mark combines an enormous depth of boots-on-the-ground experience with a strong ability to think independently and use that experience to get Good Things Done.

This article appeared briefly at LinkedIn, but through some dark evil magic disappeared from the site a couple of days later.  Who knows why.  But you should read it — and think about it.  A lot.

I’ll try to talk Mark into letting me run his upcoming articles in this series here as well, and I’ll forward any comments you want to leave here.  But you may also want to keep an eye on some of the economic development groups on LinkedIn, including Ohio Economic Development, Economic Gardening, Economic Development Specialists,

Here’s Mark:


Executive Summary: While most indicators for 2014 are showing a generally recovering economy, millions of working-age American have been left out. This is an opportunity for pig with crutcheseconomic developers to make our work more impactful by adding value to our communities by not just growing jobs, but also growing family income and wealth.


The economic report for the end of the year provided encouraging news. About 252,000 jobs were created in December, and the improvement came across a wide range of industries. The national unemployment rate was 5.6%, down from 5.8% a month ago and down from 6.8% a year ago. (1)

But a closer look at the data makes clear that the current economic resurgence is a recovery for only some. And that should concern those of us who work in economic and community development.

Let’s look at several key economic indicators that tell a more nuanced story, and document a disconnect between the headline and the full story.

  • Long Term Unemployment Continues: While overall unemployment is down, there are still 2.8 million people among the long-term unemployed. Older workers and African Americans make up a larger share of this group, who also have a 20-40% harder time finding work.
  • Many People have Dropped Out of the Workforce: Many people who want to work can’t find work, and drop out of the labor market. The Labor Force Participation Rate actually dropped to 62.7% — an historic low.
  • While Productivity is Up, Wages are stagnant: Even if people can find work, because wages are not going up, many families continue to struggle to pay the bills.
  • Poverty Continues to be a Challenge: There are still 41.6 million Americans in poverty, in both rural and urban areas of the country. And 1 in 7 families have used a food bank in the past year, including many working families. (5)(6)

If this were a “normal” economic recovery, we would be seeing improvement in all sectors. But this recovery is not normal. It is very different than any previous recessions because these underlying problems — wages, part-time workers, discouraged workers — are not coming back as the same time.

One of the issues is that at the same time we seem to be coming out of the recession, the economy is going through a major transition, brought on by technology, demographics, risk aversion and globalization.

In short, this means that many people who would otherwise be able to get jobs are not able to do so. And when they do get work, wages are insufficient to really make any earnings progress.


What Does This Mean for Economic Developers?

In short, if wages and families do not grow, our communities cannot really grow.

We’ve all been working hard to be at the cutting edge of development (technology based economic development, creative class, economic gardening, global trade).

But when the job growth is not accompanied by wage growth and a reduction in poverty, it’s important that we step back, reevaluate, understand what’s happening in the lives of the people we have chosen to serve, and make sure our programs are responsive.

When I have this discussion with peers in the industry, I generally get two very sincerely held responses: The first: “Community development is not economic development.” And the second: “This should be left to the nonprofit human services and workforce sector.”

“That’s Someone Else’s Job”

The challenge with this response is NOT that there isn’t a need for specialized approaches to community problems. The people who work in human services and CDCs do indeed have important roles. And a community that doesn’t have a strong advocate for job training programs or for alleviating poverty has abandoned many of its citizens.

The real challenge is that by taking this hands-off approach, EDPros are missing opportunities to make our industry more impactful by infusing community value-add principles into our business attraction and retention efforts.

Here’s something to think about:


Value-Add Community Development

Building communities means adding value to the lives of its citizens. In my mind, Value-Add Community Development goes beyond just counting jobs. It’s about what makes for a good job that moves families toward a living wage, that enables a community to be economically and ecologically sustainable, and that helps to improve not just the businesses, but the community as a whole.

Many of these changes probably don’t involve turning the ship around (although I do think it’s time for a total reworking of the workforce development system).

It likely means making a course adjustment to keep us going in the right direction, but being more deliberate in linking our goals with our actions.

In several postings in the next weeks, I will take a look at what elected officials, policy makers and economic developers can do and are doing to help close this economic gap.

  • What does community value add mean to you? What are the metrics that show the health of our communities?
  • Do you agree that economic developers are missing the mark and not concentrating on the basics?
  • What “community value add” activities do you see in your community that have a focused effort to support strategies to assist all of our citizens


(1) Report issued January 9, covering preliminary employment data through December, 2014.

(2) Al Gore

(3) While I don’t agree with a lot of their agenda, I do give a lot of credit to the work of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit group that focuses on promoting accountability in incentives.

(4) Even the Wall Street Journal has weighed in on this topic, highlighting among their posting “5 Reasons for the Slow Recovery in the Long Term Unemployed” from December, 2014.

(5) US Census Bureau

(6) Hunger in America Report, 2014

(7) Joe Scarborough in Politico points out that “but the .02 percent drop in unemployment was driven more by workers leaving the labor force than by new jobs.”



markMark Barbash has 30+ years of experience in community and economic development, in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He is Executive Vice President of Finance Fund, a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Columbus, Ohio. Check out Mark’s LinkedIn Profile.


Because we are all our own magazines, Nous sommes tous Charlie, now more than ever

I wrote this last week at EngagingCities in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. After some thought, I decided that it was worth re-sharing here, because any of us who tweet, share, write online or do any of this stuff, for whatever reason and from whatever personal or professional justification, face a common echo: the fear that what we say is going to make someone not like us.  Be mad at us.  Maybe even lash out or try to get back at us.

Of course, most of us will never fear for our lives or need bodyguards because of what we publicly write or say.  But we all have to make a tiny version of that choice sometimes: speak the truth as we perceive and understand it, or back off and protect our self-interest.

Like many Americans, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before last week, and I know enough now to know that satirical cartooning means something in the French culture that I can’t fully understand.  And although my pathetically bad French means that I am lucky if I can catch the drift of anything I have seen reprinted, I understand  from more well-versed sources that the weekly’s cartooning and editorial staff may have sometimes made decisions that would seem from my perspective to be in bad taste.  But that’s a core requirement of free speech, and speaking the truth as you perceive it, is about: sometimes you get it wrong.

We have always, each of us, faced a personal challenge between expressing that truth as we see it and holding back to avoid conflict.  But as we increasingly become our own mini-magazines, generating our content of what we create or what we curate to the people who read us, that challenge takes on a little more urgency.  The ability to speak to more than the people in our families and offices becomes both an opportunity, and an obligation.  Exercising free speech isn’t just something that journalists and authors and protestors do.  It’s something we have the power, and burden, to do, on a regular basis.  As I tried to describe in this piece, and talked about in the Local Economy Revolution book, the best word I know for that is bravery.  

I wrote this piece below because EngagingCities mostly functions as a digest, and we find and curate and share content that we find in blogs and niche publications and newsletters that we think adds something to the international conversation about the nexus of democracy, planning and technology. Most of those seem pretty non-controversial, but I know very well the trepidation you get sometimes when you share anything you have written, especially when you are just throwing it out there into the universe like a blogger does.  And some of the writers we share, and the readers who share us, are working in places where free speech can’t be quite so much taken for granted.

So I wanted to write both an reflection on the diffusion of the role of “media,” and give those folks a little encouragement at the same time.  But the piece at EC hasn’t gotten as much attention as our usual, so perhaps I made the kind of mistake in my exercise of free speech that I talked about before.  If you have any feedback, please do let me know.  Thanks.

Nous sommes tous Charlie, now more than ever

From the Editor

ARTICLE | JANUARY 8, 2015 – 11:00AM


By now you have probably heard from a thousand journalists more qualified than I, at a few hundred publications with more readers than us, as they respond to the incomprehensible, stomach-ache-inducing events in Paris today — where people whose job was to poke, prod, and make us admit what we didn’t want to admit, died viciously because they had done that.

Even those of us who can’t draw a stick figure recognize the impulse to truth, to share truth, or at least what we can see of truth, that guided the creators of a magazine like Charlie Hebdo.  Sometimes we all get it right, sometimes, we realize afterward, we didn’t.  But if you share information with an audience, whatever your format, you do it because there’s something that you think the world needs to hear.

The response, from thousands of people in the Place de Republic and across Europe and the world, is emblazoned on placards: “Not Afraid.”  And embodied in ball point pens held aloft like a sword.   Thank you, Parisians and those elsewhere.  Thank you for your determination.

There’s two ways to interpret that response, and the statement,  “Je suis Charlie [I am Charlie].  One is in support for journalists, journalism, satirists, cartoonists.  The importance and power of the Fourth Estate as a bulwark of democracy.  All well and good.

But when I saw the hands with pens held high like standards, I didn’t just think about magazines and professionals.  I thought about the bloggers, Medium authors, niche publications and plain old regular people whose work we read and sort through and share with you here.  Most of the time, what they write and what we share is not controversial stuff — it’s how-tos for getting people to pay attention to your project, news of some community opening its data, neat initiatives somewhere that introduce us to ideas like “gamification.”  But those writers raise their voices; they take the risk of putting their ideas out into the world.  And we consider it a central part of our job to try to signal boost as many of these voices as possible.

In a very real sense, the solidarity cry of “Je suis Charlie” means more than just “I support and value free speech and journalism.” That’s true, but there’s another dimension to the story.

Every one of us has become a piece of that Fourth Estate.  We do that every time we share a Facebook story or retweet an article.  I think a lot about that responsibility anymore, especially on my personal platforms. We, each of us, shape  the conversation in a way that the compatriots of the French Revolution could not have imagined. We each run our own micro-magazines.

For you who read and share EngagingCities content, and for you who write the words that we try to boost, I know that you sense the importance of your piece of that responsbility.  You are not just dealing in gossip or gee-whiz.  You’re working, in one form or another, to strengthen, build, fix peoples’ relationships with their communities.  You’re trying to use the tools of technology, data, and communication to change the way our places operate and the role that people play in deciding their community’s future.

As some of you know all too well, asserting that we can do it better implies that the way things are now isn’t good enough.  In doing so, you show us our current weaknesses and prod us to strive to get better.  And that often comes at a price.

In a certain sense, we all now have to own a piece of Charlie Hebdo’s burden. If we want our communities to be better, we have to shine a light on the parts that are not working, using whatever technical, artistic or rhetorical skills we have to work with.  For most of us, the price of doing that won’t come anywhere near what the people in Paris paid.  But some of you reading this are working in places where you risk much more than just an angry comment or a cold shoulder.

Joe Randazzo used to edit The Onion, a U.S.-based satirical “fake news” publication that I’ve loved for decades.  Joe wrote this today at MSNBC:

You cannot kill an idea by murdering innocent people – though you can nudge it toward suicide.

That is the real threat: that we’ll allow our fear, or our anger, to kill ourselves.

The most crucial work of journalism, whether we carry a press pass or no, is the work of that idea — telling what we see as clearly and accurately as we can, but not backing away from it because it might make someone angry.  If we have the gift of a voice, the benefit of a platform that reaches a dozen or a hundred or a couple thousand people, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to take on a piece of that work ourselves.  And when the field in which we find ourselves speaking has as much urgency as enabling our citizens to  participate better in their communities, then the opportunity, and the responsibility, extends even further.

I doubt I, or most of you, will ever be targeted by gunmen for writing in favor of improved public engagement.  Stephane Charbonnier, editor of Charlie Hebdo, knew that his life was at risk for what he published, and he chose to remain true to his responsibility to hold up that mirror, stating now famously that he would rather die standing than live on his knees.  I don’t have much ability to respond to that level of bravery, other than to know that I would probably never live up to that.

But I think I can find a little more determination, with what megaphone I have and with the small part of the world that I address, to hold up that mirror more steadily, with less wavering, less wobbling, with more resistance against the urge to turn it away or shift it to a little more flattering angle, so that the person looking in it likes me a little more.

Je suis, et nous sommes tous, Charlie.  Merci.


My thanks to Rebecca Maclean of @foodmeonce for late-night checking of my French.


Online Public Engagement Book Coming!

Just got confirmation from Routledge this morning that I will be writing a book about the selection and use of online public engagement tools for release late next year!  The book has only a working title so far, but I did write a draft introductory chapter for the editorial board to consider.  It will give you a bit of a sense of where I think I am going with this thing.  Stay tuned for more news as it develops….

Introduction:  online public engagement.

Let’s start by answering the basic question:  Yes, your community, your department, your non-profit, needs to do online public engagement. No question.  Done.




How do people in your community deal with real life?  How do they find answers to questions that worry them?  How do they shop, or at least research what they need?  How do they talk to their friends?


I don’t mean that some people aren’t more comfortable with, fluent with online communication than others.  Our that some people don’t have better access than others.  Agreed.  Understood.


But use of online technologies, on the whole, cuts across age groups, income levels, ethnicities, living conditions, to a degree that renders the old line about a digital divide, by and large, a relic of yesterday’s news.  Research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust had documented this trend: Use of online technologies, especially through mobile devices, climbs steadily across the US and the world every year.  Ninety percent of Americans have at least one cell phone.  Planners working in rural communities tell me that their homebound elderly interact with the community through Facebook on tablets, rural people worldwide seek out places where satellite signals can reach them, and urban poor residents rely on cell phones for everything from news to paying bills.


So let’s put that part of the debate to bed.  Your residents and businesses live in the online world, just like they live in the real world. So if you want to get their engagement, to understand their concerns, to help them to play a meaningfut role in figuring out the future of their community, and get the benefits that you should be getting from public engagement, you need to use online tools.  They’re not a magic bullet; they’re not a replacement for in-person activities.  They’re crucial extensions of how you work in your community.


That said, however, online engagement looks to many communities like an overgrown path through an unfamilar forest.  There’s dozens of different types of strange plants with a whole range of leaves and blossoms and smells, and branches reaching out to implant  their burrs on your clothes.  You can’t tell by looking at them which ones are safe to touch or eat, although you know that the animals who live in the underbrush somehow understand the color and scent signals that differentiate safe from unsafe. And as you look ahead, you realize that the profusion and tangle of the flora prevents you from being able to clearly differentiate one type of plant from another, especially from a distance.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, you realize that your lack of knowledge means that you can’t distinguish a safe way forward from one that will give you a rash.


New technologies, whether cars or plows or internet communications, always seem to go through a period of explosion of options in their early years.  In the 1910s, automobile buyers had a choice of a huge range of vehicles basic operation choices, from gas and electric to steam engines, kerosene or electric lamps, crank starts or electric, wooden wheels, rubber tires, etc. And dozens of very small companies all over the world — visit an antique car museum, and you’ll encounter an array of names that you’ve never heard of, or names of companies that you never knew had once made cars. Some had gotten their start in making household appliances, or sewing machines, or other items, while others had evolved from carriage makers and horse-drawn bus suppliers.  And since the basic assumptions about how a car should work hadn’t yet fully congealed, they way they would by the 1950s, each of these companies made cars a little differently, often using what they had learned in their other industries to differentiate their models from others.


From where I sit, it looks to me that online public engagement is in that phase today.  I wouldn’t necessarily assume that there’s any major consolidation on the horizon — we’re talking about software, after all, not manufacturing — but we are in a period where common language, common assumptions, and a common taxonomy and selection heuristics have not taken hold.  That’s in part because “public engagement” itself doesn’t have a clear definition or universally-shared assumptions (except for the Town Hall Three Minutes at the Mic Model, which pretty much everyone admits doesn’t work).


So this book faces a tall challenge:


  • It needs to give you a reasonably clear view of the landscape, at least in this still-shifting moment.


  • It needs to give you practical strategies and tools for figuring out the best fit between your community and project needs and resources, and the various providers who may be reaching out to you.


  • And it needs to establish a way for us to talk in common about online public engagement, which means that we need to establish a shared understanding about what we mean by public engagement, to begin with — the reasons why we may do public engagement, what people who have put some thought into this know about how we pull people in or push people away, and the full scope of ways that we can do that more effectively than we often do (spoiler alert: the Three Minutes at the Mic model isn’t it).


So.  We have a lot to cover.  Here’s an overview of how we’re going to get there:


In Part 1, we’re going to develop that shared understanding.  We’ll explore many of the common missteps, mistaken assumptions and blind spots that lead community leaders to chose online public engagement strategies that don’t meet their needs. Then we’ll look at some of the reasons why communities often feel obligated to do online public engagement, focusing on how our residents’ lives and daily experiences tend to clash with our usual approaches to public engagement.  After that, we will unpack those experiences and use them to illuminate a new way of thinking about public engagement, both online and offline, that draws on what businesses and researchers know about how groups make decisions and how people engage with democratic processes, and we’ll establish a simple framing that we’ll use to understand our options throughout the rest of the book.


In Part 2, we will work out a comprehensive guidance for planning an online public engagement initiative.  We will start with the crucial foundational elements, such as clarifying your desired results, honestly assessing your organization’s capacity to manage an online initiative, and evaluating potential platforms against technical considerations, such as application vs. open-source approaches and ensuring accessibility.


Those first two sections will include some brief examples, but remember, online public participation as an industry is in that early churn-and-experimentation stage as I am writing this, and probably still as you are reading it. That means that an example that makes perfect sense when I wrote it might be defunct or extensively changed by the time you read about it.  Sorry about that.  To try to give you some more concrete examples, but not risk them interfering with the basic guidance of the book, Part 3 is given over to case studies of specific projects that were carried out using one of more of the commercial online public participation providers available at the time of this publication.  These case studies identify what worked — and didn’t work, or didn’t work as planned — in that context, and some indication of lessons that the participants learned from that experience.


You’ll also find URLs for the providers and information resources listed in the back, as well as a glossary of the few but probably unavoidable technical terms that work their way into the book.



Why am I writing about this?


That’s a question that I personally think any author should answer, so that you understand where that person is coming from and whether he or she is probably worth reading.  So here’s the thumbnail sketch of my story.


I usually identify myself as a planner, but my undergraduate degree is in education.  I was trained to teach English to secondary school kids, and because of where I went to college and when, the teaching methods that I learned made heavy use of a technique called small group collaborative learning. The theory behind that approach is that people understand information and learn it at a deeper level when they figure it out for themselves, and when they do that work of learning in partnership with a small group of their peers.  In the couple of years that I taught, my classrooms were generally very loud and pretty chaotic-learning, but it was pretty clear to me that the students “got” the material in a much more meaningful way when I could do that than when I was stuck having to lecture.


Like a lot of young teachers in my generation, a combination of lack of good jobs and frustrating bureaucracy led me in search of my Act II by the time I was 23.  After about eight years of doing historic preservation work, I did a masters in planning and went to work for a consulting firm.  Soon I found myself managing comprehensive plans, and since my masters concentration was in economic development, I can admit today that I wasn’t going into them with the usual enthusiam over land use densities and zoning implications.


What I did relate to almost immediately was that whether or not a comp plan did anything constructive (like, get passed), depended heavily on whether or not the community’s residents, business owners and the like understood what the plan was intended to achieve and played an active role in supporting it.  So I decided that getting the public as actively involved in the planning process as possible was the best way for the clients (and me) to end up with a success story.  And since the last time I had been responsible to managing the activities of a bunch of people had been in a middle school classroom, I ended up adapting the methods I had used with 13 year olds to steering committees and auditoriums full of adults.  And it worked surprisingly well.  Well, maybe not that surprisingly.


At about the same time as I was managing comp plans, I had also become the mother of two small boys. Between a demanding job and the usual chaos of a toddler-driven household, I became a pretty avid technology adopter.  I know that a lot of people who are knowledgeable about online technology have a background in programming or IT, and get excited about the gee-whiz elements of new apps and platforms.  I don’t know how to program and am generally suspicious of gee-whiz.  I started using online technologies for a very basic reason:


I was overextended, over-scheduled and overwhelmed, and anything that could let me get something done faster looked like, in all seriousness, a thread of a lifeline.


So when people tell me that they don’t think that communities need to use online technologies to engage with their residents, that it’s too hard or too complicated or too risky, and it’s good enough the way it is, and we’ll get to it eventually maybe, my first reaction is not to think about applications versus Drupal platforms, or Javascript or CSS.


My first reaction is to think about all of the hours I wasted in my clients’ council meetings waiting for the two minute update I had to give.  Or the town hall session I ran one evening where no one my own age showed up at all.


Or the sidewalk that I wanted to be installed in my neighborhood, that wasn’t because a few people protested at a meeting that I couldn’t attend… because I was either working or chasing a loud and cranky toddler that night.


As I’ll articulate more in a later chapter, we need online public participation not because it’s cool or convenient or it makes our town look like we know what’s going on.  We need online public participation — good, thoughtful, meaningful online public participation — because we need the insight, the feedback and the wisdom of the huge cross section of people who cannot or will not fit the 19th-century model that we lean on unreflectively when we assume that the people who didn’t come to the 7PM Tuesday Open House… well, they’re apathetic. They’re disengaged.  They just Don’t Care.


They might not care. Or they might care a lot.  And they might have a valuable insight, a new solution, a way to make your community better that you wouldn’t have known about without them. If you can’t hear them, you don’t know what you have missed..


So that’s why I have paid so much attention to online public engagement over the past few years, and why have researched and written about these platforms, and used them in my own work, and maintained the only web site so far that provides a central information hub about the platforms and providers that communities can use to do online public engagement today.


And it’s why I hope you picked up this book. Thanks for doing that. I hope it does you good.


Crowdsourcing Wisdom, Beginning of Part 2

After a few weeks of trying to catch up on everything else from the Fall Travel Palooza, I am trying to get the Crowdsourcing Wisdom book finished before the end of the month.  The book has three parts — the first section, which I’ve shared previously, tries to frame up why our current public engagement methods aren’t working.  This selection is from the beginning of the second section, which will be more of a how-to.  The third section will have some activities and exercises for people to try on their own.

I felt that I needed to give some basis for where this method was coming from, instead of  just launching straight into it, so I felt like I needed to talk a little bit about the education methodologies that underlay the approach.  But I don’t want to take the time to do a whole lot of research, so I kind of cut corners.  So I don’t know if this is too much background, or too little.


As before, please let me know what you think. Thanks!


Part 2:    How to Crowdsource Wisdom

OK, so we’ve established that our new approach to public engagement needs:

  1. To tap the wisdom of our crowd, reaching far beyond the “do you like this?” kinds of feedback that we’ve been doing
  2. To make the act of being involved in public engagement worth it – worth it for the people who come and for the people who set up and manage and are supposed to carry out the results of the thing.
  3. Break down a few generations’ worth of mistrust, built up by confrontational meeting formats, uncontrolled soapbox-hoggers, meaningless fake “participation,” a pervasive sense of wasted time, and so much more.


In addition, from a practical standpoint, we need to do the following:

  1. Get enough information into their hands to be able to apply their experience and wisdom in an intelligent fashion (spoiler alert: a droning Power Point of the project minutiae won’t cut it).
  2. Give them decision points that they can actually affect (not setting them up to fall in love with recommendations that would involve a rearrangement of the solar system to be able to come to pass). This is, pragmatically, so that we can get information that makes the plan better – and avoids pissing them off.

3) Give us ways to clearly understand what they’re trying to tell us – and give us fact-based political cover when we change a policy or a zoning based on what we heard from them.

4)Build a network of people who understand where the things we end up doing came from – and have enough of a personal stake in what happened to stand up for them.


In this section, we’re going to examine a new method for doing that – it’s not really a new method, because teachers have been using it for a couple of decades.  And it’s not even all that new in public engagement, because I and a few others have been using this for a couple of decades.   But chances are, it’s new to you and your community.

New things are unfamiliar things.  They unease people, they scare people, they sometimes make people want to push the system back to the old ways.   And for those old-timers who are used to being In Charge of Everything, who expect the public to stay passive and let the experts run the show, who see nothing wrong with how our public engagement and our community decision-making has been done… they might have some strong opinions about what you’re doing.  But I’ll make you a promise: if you shift your public engagement to crowdsourcing wisdom, you’re going to discover some very happy and very dedicated local people.  And they will have your back in ways that you might not anticipate today.

A little background: Small Group Cooperative Learning

This book is not intended in the least to be a scholarly, well-researched thing – but I think you need a little background on the basis of this approach.

Small group cooperative education is one of a collection of related methods that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a means of enabling children to learn more deeply and meaningfully – to get beyond simple rote repetition of facts, and to give students the opportunity to grapple with the content more deeply and to develop interpersonal and collaborative problem-solving skills.

In many manifestations, small group cooperative learning and its sibling teaching methods were developed to enable students to gain experience and mastery in using higher level thinking skills, often drawing on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Critical thinking.  Bloom’s Taxonomy framed critical thinking as a tiered system of increasingly independent and complex approaches to information; the Taxonomy starts with simple knowledge of facts and progresses through Comprehension and Application of information,culminating in the higher level skills of Analysis (taking the information apart and understanding its pieces), Synthesis (putting facts and information together in a different way to create something new), and, finally, Evaluation.

Interestingly, Bloom’s Taxonomy and other similar framings of how we think indicate that we aren’t actually ready to evaluate something until after we’ve taken it apart and thought about how to put it back together differently.  Looked at from that perspective, it’s no wonder we get such crappy evaluations of community plans and proposals via our usual methods.  Most of the time, we barely help them build any basic knowledge of the proposal, let along apply, analyze or synthesize it.


Small group cooperative methods were initially tested on elementary school children, since it was understood that kids at this level often need help learning not only their subject matter, but how to work together effectively as well.  By the time I was learning to be a teacher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, small group cooperative methods were being used somewhat widely in secondary school classrooms.  From what I understand, mandated testing has made it harder to use these methods in school classrooms, but even in my own kids’ school work, I have seen cooperative small group strategies pop up fairly regularly.


The basic pieces of a small group collaborative teaching activity look like this:

1) The kids work together in small groups.  Most of the time, the teacher assigns the groups.

2) The kids in the groups are intentionally mixed in terms of their academic ability – a weak reader is put in a group with two average readers and one strong reader, a math whiz works in a group with three kids who are doing OK and one who is struggling.  This mixing is to tap the benefits of peer learning – the kid who is struggling may be more inclined to listen to a kid his own age, and that kid will probably gain a deeper command of the content through teaching it to someone else.  As every teacher quickly learns, you often learn more from teaching than you did from being taught.

3) The group has some basic rules of engagement – guidance as to how they are to treat each other, how you help someone (as opposed to doing the work for them), how they should resolve disputes, etc.  Typically these ground rules are laid down by the teacher, but smart teachers often crowdsource some of the rules from the students as well.  That gives the classroom more ownership of the results.

4) The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together – a diorama demonstrating the impact of a historical event, a complex math word problem to solve and be able to explain to the rest of the class, peer editing each person’s essay and giving recommendations on how to make it better.  They know what they need to do, what the final results need to look like.

5)The group does the work, largely independently.  The teacher is around, checking in every so often, giving guidance or correction or encouragement when the groups need it.  The teacher’s big work was on the front end- planning the activities, preparing the materials, using her or his expertise to set up the groups and frame the rules, and now the teacher’s work focuses on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.

6) The group shares its work with the rest of the class, so that everyone gets to experience some of the benefit of what they did.


Researchers have done all sorts of experiments and analysis on how small group cooperative education works in certain situations, certain subject matter and age groups, etc.  But let’s cut to it.  When I was a teacher, and I used small groups cooperative methods with middle school and high school students, I found that the classes that I used these methods with worked better than the ones where I did not.   The kids seemed to consistently gain a bunch of advantages:

  • Kids that were too shy or insecure to speak up in front of the whole class found it much easier to express their opinons in front of three or four other kids. Which meant that they talked more and participated more.
  • The existence of clear rules and group expectations put everyone on a more level playing field, since no one was the boss.
  • Kids that wanted to avoid participating in the class didn’t have that choice, because their classmates knew that everyone needed to participate and held them to account.
  • Kids that would have found it easy to act out, to make a scene in front of the whole class, found it much harder to do so when face-to-face with their peers, who felt empowered in that context to demand that they participate.
  • The tasks that they were doing as a group were more interesting that any worksheet or essay that they would have been doing otherwise.

Did my students complain sometimes?  Yup.  Did some of them resent being forced to work with kids they didn’t like?  You betcha.  But 19 times out of 20, the bellyaching gave way to doing good school work.  My classrooms were noisy, messy, sometimes argumentative and usually chaotic-looking.  But when you looked closer, you could see that the kids were generally focused, concentrating, working on something that they cared about.  And with middle school kids, engaging them in caring about their work can be the hardest thing of all.

And as the teacher, I reaped some pretty sweet benefits, too:

  • I could manage the classroom more proactively– I could separate kids who reinforced each other’s bad behavior without making it a thing about them, and I could give a kid who was trying but having a hard time a group with the kids who would be most supportive, giving him or her the best shot I could at a productive experience.
  • I could shift my classroom time from crisis management to guidance. Which, as you might imagine, feels a whole lot better.
  • I could get them (and me) engaged in the subject on a much more interesting level – and believe me, the 10th time you’ve taught Beowulf or split infinitives, the teacher can get every bit as bored as the students. Much more fun to hear groups give their own interpretations of how Grendel relates to modern human fears than to grade 40 worksheets.

When my teaching career demonstrated a strong urge to go nowhere and I eventually morphed into a planner and public engagement specialist, it made sense that I brought that small group cooperative learning skill set with me.  You see, even when you have a degree in planning, and you’ve been taught how important it is to  “engage” with the “public,” no one actually teaches you how to do that.  So I used what I had.

Over the past 15 years, I have done public engagement sessions using these tools and tricks with groups of several hundred, and with groups of ten.  I’ve used them in very rural and very urban, very highly educated and very disadvantaged neighborhoods, and I’ve used them on boring comprehensive plan updates and on issues that were so hot topic that participants told me that they thought it would be impossible to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

This is why I say that the ugliness, the nastiness, the ineffectiveness and the uselessness of how we do public engagement – it does not have to be that way.  There’s no reason it should be that way.   With a little forethought, a better toolkit, and a little determination, we can create more constructive public meetings, rebuild the relationship between the government and the community, and make our plans and public decisions better.  All we have to do is to crowdsource wisdom.

Here’s how.






Vacancies, Population Decline, and Household Size: now you know!

We here at the Wise Economy Workshop have known for a long time how great Jason Segedy is — his writings

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The Fabulous Jason, aka @thestile1972. People who wear Joy Division t -shirts can’t _not_ be trusted, right?

here and here and here and here and elsewhere have been some of the best, and often most lyrical, content that we’ve run in the last few years (plus he added a deeply philosophical chapter to Why This Work Matters).   And, finally, word of that is starting to get out even farther.

Here’s what the online magazine Planetizen  just published:


Jason Segedy has published a long, brutally frank look at blight and vacant properties, especially at the underappreciated culprit for the woes of so many shrinking cities around the Rust Belt: household decline.

Segedy begins the long article (originally published on Notes from the Underground and later picked up by Rustwire) by asking the question of  “why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?”

The proliferation of vacancies and blight during the 21st century is the result of demographic trends taking place over 50 years independently from the planning decisions of many cities. In fact, Segedy suggests we “[forget], for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.” and focus on demographic trends like rising divorce rates, rising age of first marriage, rising life expectancy, and declining birth rates, which occurred all at the same time.

Here’s how Segedy then sums up the impact of shrinking household: “The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century.”

And it follows: “Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time.”


Full Story: What’s in a Number? Confronting Urban Population Decline


Wise Economy Workshop Birthday Promotion! 30%-50% off Wise Fool Books!

It’s kind of shocking (at least to me) but it’s been four (four!) years since I launched the Wise Economy Revolution!  In that time I’ve gained thousands of readers, yammered at thousands of not-entirely-helpless audience members, gained the friendship of some amazing people and had the privilege of working on some kick-ass projects.  Also, I finally managed to write a book and edit another one, and I’m proud as hell of them both.

To celebrate surviving another year of this craziness, you can pick up both The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help and Why This Work Matters: Wisdom from the People Who are Making Communities Better for 30% to 50% (yes, 50%) off their usual price!

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Whether you prefer print or digital, we got’cha covered.  Just click

Here for print or ePUB -type digital (IPad or Nook)


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Thank you for four great years!  We got a lot more to do…let’s go get ’em!

Media feeding us crap on downtown revitalization, in downtown Las Vegas and elsewhere

This is the final installment of the mega-post on downtown revitalization and the Downtown Project, Las Vegas. It’s also the one I feel most strongly about.   If you missed the previous entries, you can catch up hereherehere and here.

5) Meaningful revitralization efforts are more complex than you will ever learn from conventional (crappy) media coverage.

Caveat #4: My own media cred consists of a bunch of articles, mostly in professional publications, managing a couple of niche publishing platforms, and 6 weeks in the Medil School of Journalism.

In other words, not much.

But because of the work I do, I have the privilege of encountering a lot of media. And I get to read a lot of excellent, insightful reporting on pretty complex topics.

And nothing like that has shown up to date in the coverage of the Downtown Project.

GigaOm and CityLab are two publications that I go to regularly. I trust them to give intelligent, thoughtful coverage of issues relating to technology, urban development, urban livability issues. The core stuff of my professional life.

But both of these publications ran – there’s no other way around it – crap coverage of the Downtown Project story. GigaOm, as I’ve noted, ran an article that so dripped with snarky self-justification that the potentially legitimate claims in the article could not be differentiated from whatever unspoken axes the author had to grind. And CityLab, to my great dismay, ran a mash-up of other people’s regurgitations on the topic with almost no apparent questioning or critical thinking or research or independent evaluation at all.

Both these and more general media seem to want to give us nothing other than a tabloid-level story – “Oooh, The Big Guy is falling!!! Lookie Lookie!” The fact that there was a Big Name associated with the story seemed to make it OK to throw out reasonable reporting standards and go straight to as close to the gutter as you can get on this topic.

As I hope you’ve gotten a sense of by now, that version of what the Downtown Project bears about as much resemblance to the original as my stick figure drawing does to the Mona Lisa. It’s a gross disservice to readers, especially readers who might care about the related topics. It’s media laziness at its worst.

But here’s the bigger issue: publications give us this kind of coverage of complex urban revitalization projects because they don’t think that we can or want to understand the full breadth and complexity of what it actually takes to make a difference in a struggling community. As I said at the beginning, this stuff is complicated. It’s not easy. There are no magic bullets. And no one, not even Tony Hsieh, can make it happen by himself.

But it’s one of the most important challenges that we as a nation have to address in this generation. CityLab knows that better than anyone.

And it’s not a case of a couple bad editorial decisions: in city after city, from interns and from reporters who have deep history in a community and should know better, I’ve seen the same exact over-simplified, distracting, un-thoughtful, un-insightful coverage. Over and over again.

The deep, vicious, pernicious damage that this kind of coverage causes really isn’t just the black eye it might give to an organization, the hurt feelings of well-intentioned people, the mean-spirited swing at a public figure.

The deep damage, and the damage that makes me so angry, is what it tells us, the readers:

You can’t really fix these problems. Even the Superhero couldn’t do it (snicker, snicker, snort).

It’s hopeless. Don’t even try.

And if you do try, we’ll drag you through the mud next.

No wonder so few of our communities have made the kind of deep, pervasive improvements that we really want. Most of us get the message loud and clear: you can’t.

And you can’t. Tony Hsieh can’t, either. The difference, as far as I can tell, is that he knows that. And so do several hundred other people in Downtown Las Vegas.

Which is what gives them a fighting chance.

If you are serious about helping make your community better, please stop reading general media articles about downtown revitalization projects, whether it’s the Downtown Project or it’s the downtown project in your home town. What we need to do in all of our communities, whether you’re in Nevada or Rhode Island or Ohio, is far more complicated than a comic book storyline. It’s got more needs, more participants, more tangled-up issues, more truly wicked problems than most of your standard news articles will make any attempt at indicating.

And there are people out there who are diligently, furiously trying to figure it out. Most will never get the press spotlight that the Downtown Project has. And that might not be an entirely bad thing.

If we are, across all of our communities, going to finally, finally make a real dent in revitalizing our communities, we have to stop accepting this kind of fatalism. Go learn what they’re actually doing instead.


One more note to the Downtown Project’s supporters, friends, participants, etc.:

A lot of you know details that I don’t, and that I shouldn’t. I have no idea who did something right and who did something wrong. I’m not a member of your community and I won’t claim to be.

But here’s what I do know:

You, all of you, are doing something important. You know from your own businesses and lives that when you choose to do something important, it’s not always easy. Sometimes things go badly. Sometimes it’s confusing and frustrating and it hurts. And sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it.

It’s the same when you’re doing downtown revitalization. You’re just taking on something a hell of a lot more complicated.

Hang in there. You’re fighting the good fight. I’m pulling for you – for all of you.

See you soon.

More learnings from and for community revitalizers: No Cults of Personality

This is the fourth installment of the mega-post on downtown revitalization and the Downtown Project, Las Vegas. I warned you it was mega If you missed the previous entries, you can catch up herehere and here .

4) Cults of personality don’t work. We have this weird desire to want stories of revitalization to revolve around some kind of a Big Hero (who sometimes turns into an anti-hero). We keep eating up these stories that imply that This One Guy made this great thing work — or single-handedly made this mess. Tony Hseih has been cast in that role for Downtown Las Vegas. Dan Gilbert plays this role right now in Detroit. I can show you developers, mayors, gadflies in cities all over the country paying that same role.

But it’s a role. It’s almost never the actual story. But we keep slurping up the simplistic story.

The Downtown Project has sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, fed that cult of personality. Gould’s letter and the GigaOm article indicate that the cult of personality took hold in at least some corners That tour in the apartment definitely gave that impression (I did give some advice to the Downtown Project along those lines afterward).

In my own head, I chalk that up to growing pains — you start by working with what you have to work with, and Hseih’s vision and Hseih’s apartment was probably what they had to work with at first. But that and other subtle gee-whiz references to Hsieh probably has had the unintended effect of allowing a perception of a cult of personality to take effect.

There’s no question that Downtown Project supporters have bought into Hseih’s vision. But one of the first things I noticed as I got to know the Downtown Project was that the leadership, the activity, the ownership of the work, was actually much more diffused that the mainstream media had ever indicated (I wrote about that at length here).

Most downtown and community revitalizations programs operate in a highly top-down manner. The Board of Directors sets a policy, the staff figures out how to do it, and everyone else in the community either does what staff assigned them to do or sits back passively while the organization does its stuff. If you’re not already part of the sanctum sanctorum, your ability to get the organization’s blessing to try something new under their aegis is limited at best. Community organizations tend to be pretty work-plan-oriented, focused, closed circles, often to their detriment.

What I saw in the Downtown Project was fundamentally different. I saw people who had no committee memberships, no formal roles, no job descriptions, coming up with initiatives that they thought fit into the overall game plan…and going and doing it. Taking it at least as far as they could go on the resources and support that they could cobble together under their own power, and then coming to the umbrella organization when they reached a point where they knew that the idea had legs but they needed more help. When I wrote my earlier essay about that, I theorized that It might have to do with the holocracy theory that was floating about at that time, but another Downtown Project participant told me later that she thought this was simply the start-up approach at work in the community.

Either way, it was a fundamentally different approach from what I was used to seeing in community revitalization programs – one that I thought that other community revitalizations advocates nationwide could learn a great deal from.

And it was jarringly different from the Downtown Superhero comic book that I was reading in the mainstream press.


More Slogging with Lessons from and for Las Vegas, Part 3

This is the third installment of the mega-post on downtown revitalization and the Downtown Project, Las Vegas.  If you missed it, you can catch up on that  here and here.

4) Organizations, whether business, downtown or community – focused, go through change. And change sucks. The lead for the stories written lately about the Downtown Project (and the apparent source of much of that cackling noise you seem to hear in the background of the stories) is that the umbrella organization laid off a whole lot of people. To David Gould, who gave a very heartfelt and articulate account of his sense of betrayal at this situation, the root cause appears to be mismanagement, or at least managerial mistakes. In the official response from the Dowtown Project, the layoffs have to do more with transitioning into a new phase of operations (following a very clearly laid out plan of action that the Downtown Project published but for some reason hasn’t been referenced in any of the media articles).

Which is true? I don’t know. Maybe neither. Maybe both.

The Downtown Project as a whole employs more people than any other downtown or community revitalization program that I know of. Most downtown programs have to make do with much less staff, but of course most aren’t directly running so many initiatives.

But here is an unavoidable fact:

Every program I have ever encountered has laid people off at some point in its existence.

Sometimes that’s because of funding, but sometimes that’s because they need to change what they’re doing. Because something that worked in the past doesn’t work anymore, because some part of the work plan has been taken over by another agency, because something changed in the local environment and something else is needed.

The difference is that when most programs have to change like that, they lay off one person, maybe two. It might make the local paper. But it’s not a big enough story for anyone else to pay attention.

Layoffs suck. I watched my own father get laid off in the early 1980s, which transformed my life. I lost my own staff to layoffs and cried myself sick in the middle of an office. I narrowly escaped layoffs more than once in my corporate career, and left to go on my own when it looked like it could happen again. Every layoff is a personal tragedy, and David Gould articulated that as well as anyone I’ve ever read.

But if you’re serious about building a meaningful, lasting change in a community, sometimes you face hard choices. Downtown organizations are no different than businesses in that regard. A double standard that says that just because you’re not a business, you never have to change, consistently leads to a soon-to-be-dead revitalization program

We’ve all been told over and over again that businesses that don’t figure out how to pivot (for cryin our loud, there’s a GigaOm word if there ever was one), then they will not succeed. And given that even the most well-intentioned sugar daddy cannot become a healthy long-term strategy, maturing downtown programs almost always face this crossroads at some time.

For every one of those organizations that I have ever encountered, laying off someone has sucked. Gould is exactly right. It sucks for the laid off staff and for those left behind.

It’s awful.

But that does not mean that sometimes it doesn’t have to happen. Especially if you intend for your program to be able to stand on its own after its start-up days are done.

One thing that other community revitalization initiatives probably can learn from the Downtown Project on this front: even in the otherwise highly transparent statement about why the layoffs were undertaken and how that fit into the long range plan, the language describing the actual layoffs sounds like it was written by an HR lawyer, full of corporate-style obfuscations. My hunch, looking on from a distance, is that this shift from transparency to HR-talk didn’t help build support and understanding. I realize that there’s no shortage of legal requirements and lawsuit fears and what all surrounding any layoff, whether corporate or organization, but a more forthright comment about “these are the kinds of positions we are changing and here’s why” might have helped.

The Long Hard Slog of Community Revitalization, Part deux

This is a continuation of the mega-post that I told the story of yesterday.  If you missed it, you can catch up lightning fast (well, sorta)  here.

2) If you’re serious about trying to find genuinely new solutions, you still have to pay for it — and the usual channels won’t be much help. One of the protests levelled against the Downtown Project in the GigaOm article is that the project’s attempt to rethink education, through an initiative known as the 9th Bridge School, is private and has a high-priced tuition.

Let’s set aside for a moment the basic fact that this is the only downtown initiative that I can think of that has actually made an effort at trying to improve the education options for families with young children – the ones that most downtown programs say they would love to attract but, you know, we just can’t change the schools. Sorry.

If you are a city person who made the decision to raise children, you may understand what I mean.

Trying to find solutions to the mess we have made as a nation of education (and health care, subject of another Downtown Project partner), represents one of the most vexing, vicious, seemingly intractable urban problems that anyone, anywhere, is undertaking. Millions of dollars in public grant funds have been expended across the country, and although bright spots sometimes appear, the overall conclusion among hundreds of experts on urban education is that these systems, overall, are continuing to fail.

The Downtown Project earned the Gigaom author’s vitriol because the Third Street School is private and expensive. Which makes me think that the author has never tried to fund an innovative search for a solution through the typical education innovation grants.

As a writer for a business publication, I would presume that the following should not be a shock to him:

When you use the usual funding tools available for “educational innovation,” you face a huge number of constraints. Rules. Limitations. The GigaOm author accused the Downtown Project of insincerity and insularity from the real problems of the city because its experiment around developing a better education program means that a small school with highly qualified teachers has to charge very high tuition rates in order to keep itself afloat.

But money to do good work does not magically appear. If you are serious about doing something, you have to find a way to pay for it. And I assure you: the usual funding streams used for public school “innovations” seldom allow you to do much beyond fiddling with the margins. A little time around people who are furiously trying to improve public education makes that apparent. Too often, the program requirements and strictures tie at least one of their hands behind their back.

If you’re truly serious about figuring out a new way to address education, and you suspect that a variation on the Usual Ways isn’t going to enable the kind of sea change that you think is needed, then you have to find a way to pay for the initial experimental work. That’s Econ 101.

3) You cannot rely on a sugar daddy forever, even if the sugar daddy assures you that he will never leave you. Of couse, the GigaOm author might argue, Tony Hseih and his rich buddies could just give every kid in urban Las Vegas a free Third Street School education. Or free health care. Or ponies, for that matter. They’re rolling in it, right?

Gifts are fine if your objective is to make immediate solutions to immediate needs. But if you are serious about building a deep, substantive, sustainable transformation of the core issues underlying education or health, we should know by now that throwing money at it will create no more than temporary, surface change.

We have 40 years of doing exactly that, in all manner of state and national public policy, through grant programs whose total spend is almost beyond comprehension. These were well-intentioned efforts to address deep systemic urban needs, promoted and used by well-intentioned, dedicated community professionals all over the world.

And in far too many cases, the changes they paid for never reached below the surface.

Because of that, they didn’t last after the initial funding ran out. The deep benefits that those Big Programs were supposed to deliver never fully materialized because the community surrounding the project could not or did not own the work enough to grow it, to evolve it, to keep it going.

We have wasted, as a nation, exorbitant amounts on Big Gift Projects that gave a politician an easy victory, but engendered precious few deep long-term improvements.

My guess is that Tony Hseih could give every nickel he earns for the rest of his life to downtown Las Vegas (or Cleveland, or Philadelphia, or any city), and when he ran out of money, the core problems might well remain.

We have a national legacy of communities where Big Fixes were done _to_ them, not with them. Come visit me in the Midwest, and I will take you to urban neighborhood after urban neighborhood that are grappling today with not just the problems they’ve had for decades, but with the unintended consequences of Big Projects that were done To Them.

You’ll see neighborhoods where fancy park equipment rusts, where storefronts butchered by moderization programs crumble, where businesses that relied on subsidies folded and left intractable vacancies when that support was abruptly removed.

And you’ll see communities where generations of residents have grown up with almost no experience of a functioning local economy.

When the money went away, there was no local capacity to keep the momentum going— and where what connections and self-sufficiency might have existed before had been all but killed off by the professional brush-aside and the resulting learned helplessness.

I encounter dying communities still waiting on the Big Gift every day.

Those Big Gifts were supposed to solve a whole lot of problems. Most people who work with urban communities would say that most of the time, they made the situation worse.

I can’t see where a private sector sugar daddy could avoid the same fate.


The Long Hard Slog of Community Revitalization (and how media fails us): A close observer’s perspective on the Downtown Project, Las Vegas (Pt.1)

As regular readers here know, I have been a very interested student of the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.  Like most initiatives that spring up from somewhere outside Business as Usual, I’ve found a lot in this initiative that is new to me and offering potential new strategies on problems that have bedeviled community revitalization efforts for a long time.

Last week they had some stuff hit the fan….and since they have a Big Name attached to their efforts, they got a level of press that was way beyond the usual local rag disinterst that most such efforts encounter.  And I found myself in an odd position: I knew enough about what the Downtown Project was doing to know that much of the mainstream press was missing the real story in favor of a tired hero-turns-villain trope, and I knew enough about what it actually takes to successfully revitalize a community to put the Downtown Project’s efforts in a very different context.

So I wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  When I was done, after forgetting to eat meals and the life, I had turned out  a ridiculously long piece of work.  I posted it first on Medium because some of the original writings I was responding to had been posted there, and Medium,  which tells you in the header how long it will take you to read a post, clocked my magnum opus at….21 minutes.  Ugh.

To my great surprise, though, people have not only been brave enough to read it, they’ve actually like it.  That said, though, I thought it might be easier to make sense of if I broke it into smaller pieces.

Ironically, while all of that was hitting, I was getting ready to head back to Vegas this week for Tech Cocktail Celebrate on behalf of EngagingCities.  So while I am travelling this week, I will serialize the mega thing so that you don’t have to take it all on at one crack like those poor Medium readers did.  If you do want to read the whole thing in one sitting and you don’t feel like watching a sitcom, you can grab the whote thing here.  But below is Part 1.  Have fun!


If it were easy, you would have done it already.

—Me, to a couple thousand community leaders nationwide over the last whole lot of years.

I often tell the groups I work with that I think I ended up in the community revitalization business because I wanted to take on the most complex and meaningful challenge I could get my hands on. For a Rust Belt kid who came up in a world of economic fallout and deep, painful community-wide losses, the kinds of issues I chose to take on aren’t surprising. And over the last couple of decades I’ve coached hundreds of communities, community leaders, volunteers and, yes, naysayers, through the tangled mess of figuring out how to make their communities better.

It’s grueling work. Not for me –I get to go home at the end of the meeting, after all – but for the people who fight hard, over and over and over, to make that Big Difference. They get abused, they get bloodied, they make mistakes and the fall on their faces – only to get up again and wade into the battle one again.

But few have had to do that recently while sitting under the klieg light that’s been shining on the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project before, and that writing has come out of a somewhat selfish objective:

I see something going on with the Downtown Project that is significantly different from the way we old-line downtown revitalization folks have been doing things for the last 30 years. And…what they’re doing is complex. It’s got more moving pieces than a mechanical watch, and sometimes it looks like chaos in action. It’s following a significantly different way to get to the usual downtown revitalization objectives than I’ve seen before.

In my writing and speaking I’ve said more than once that I think the Downtown Project represents an important, emerging paradigm shift, the bleeding edge of a potentially transformative new approach to the wicked problems that face downtowns and urban communities nationwide. And after a lot of years of getting increasingly frustrated over our well-intentioned but somehow often inadequate strategies for helping communities do what I want to help them to do, I’m on the hunt for new ideas.

So I’ve spent as much time as I can in Downtown Las Vegas, with DTLV people, following DTLV events from a distance, and trying to untangle in my own head how what the people in Downtown Las Vegas are doing is similar to and different from what I see everywhere else. I’m going back next week in part for that same reason. I’ve written about a few pieces of that puzzleherehere and here, and I’ve got other elements in outline form that I haven’t had time to fully work out yet.

Caveat #1: I’m not a member or a consultant to the Downtown Project. I’m no more than a persistent lurker.

So I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of days following the news (and quasi-news) about a supposed or apparent turmoil within DTLV. Some versions sound like total misread (it’s hard to resign as a CEO if you were never the CEO to begin with), some versions sound like incredibly painful internal struggles (phrased differently, but eerily similar to what I’ve seen in other communities) and, perhaps most disturbingly, some versions sound like they are drawing from some older, more deep-seated aggravation. Sometimes a new irritation opens an old festering sore.

And a lot of the published versions seem to revolve around one person.

Caveat: #2: I’ve never met Tony Hseih. I think I rode an elevator with him once. I might have said hello. So much for that.

But as I read the materials flying around today – professional media and personal bloggers, dispassionate, bitter or clearly aching, well written or a sloppy mishmash of other peoples’ information, as well as the Downtown Project’s attempt to put its own version out there – I’m realizing anew how little most people understand about the brutally hard work of revitalizing communities.

After all those years of crawling through the trenches with folks who are trying to reach fundamentally the same objectives that the Downtown Project set out to address, it’s a bit of a shock to remember how little of that process most people understand.

I’m usually reluctant to throw in on specific community issues, but in this case I don’t think there’s anyone else who can provide this point of view. I have meant to write a more comprehensive analysis of how the Downtown Project works for the benefit of my readers nationwide, who I’ve sometimes identified as the People Who Give a Damn. This isn’t the way I planned to do it, but so be it.

Caveat #3: No one has perfect insight. Including people who work to make communities better. Including me. Sometimes we have no choice but to do the best we can.

Points for your consideration:

1) Revitalizing a community, especially an urban, disinvested community, is an unbelievably long-haul process.

Come with me, and I’ll take you to hundreds of cities and villages that have been working on their downtown or neighborhood for decades. As in, 20, 30, 40 years.

Why so long?

Sometimes it’s because the organization doesn’t work well. Sometimes it’s because they didn’t have the money or the people to do it right.

But in most cases, it’s because no one started trying to make it better until 30, 40, 50 years after the place started going downhill.

Enabling a real revitalization of a community is a process of crawling, excruciatingly, from handhold to handhold, up a sheer rock wall out of a very deep abyss. In the Main Street downtown revitalization world, where I first cut my teeth as a professional and still work a lot, there’s a common refrain:

“Your town didn’t get this way overnight, and you won’t get out overnight either.”

For most downtown or neighborhood revitalization programs, two or three years flow under the bridge before the general public starts to see a difference. Those first years are spent doing crucial, and grindingly un-exciting, work:

Understanding the community. Learning how to work with the local government. Developing plans, whether formal or not. Finding the right people to fill needed roles. And this is the most important task of those early years: building deep, trustful, working relationships with others in the community.

When you look at a downtown revitalization initiative that does anything beyond window-dressing, you will see a core of community relationships that cross boundaries and interests groups and types of work, and you will see a level of trust, of confidence in their ability to work together.

More money can make the physical clean-up go faster, it can allow an organization to grab the obvious low-hanging fruit more quickly, but it can do very little to speed up that relationship-building process.

I can say as authoritively as I can say anything: the organizations that don’t build these relationships, that don’t put the time and the effort into building deep and trusting relationships, don’t last and don’t generate anything except for some brief flashy fun, pretty pavers, a few temporarily filled cleaned-up storefronts.

I first saw Downtown Las Vegas long before DTLV started. This was a tough place. Disinvested. Few community-supporting businesses. Few jobs. Lots of deterioration. It looked as bad as the beat-up neighborhoods I knew so well from back home in the Rust Belt. And that was in the Vegas Economy Glory Days of the mid-2000s.

Whatever led to the downtown area’s decline, it started before Tony Hseih was born.

The Downtown Project has been active for just over two years. The much-ballyhoo’d Container Park has been open less than a year. The majority of the businesses and places and organizations associated with the Downtown Project have been in operation for less than 8 months.

When I did a tour of the Downtown Project in July, I found that most of that “tour” happened in Tony Hseih’s apartment (more than that in a minute). When I asked why, the answer both surprised me and reminded me of how young this organization is:

til about four months before that day, most of the things that they would have put on such a tour in most cities… only existed as conceptual drawings. Until very shortly before I arrived, a real tour would have taken you mostly to dusty vacant lots with some construction equipment. On the usual hot Vegas day, not such an appealing prospect.

In an article in GigaOm that surprised me in its claws-out fury (given that the very clearly opinionated article was nowhere identified as an editorial.)the author accused the Downtown Project of not doing enough to address the very significant social and cultural problems facing Downtown Las Vegas and Las Vegas in general. From the very poor quality of the public school district to the lack of living wage jobs in the downtown area, the author accused Downtown Las Vegas of self-absorption, of not attempting to solve the biggest issues facing the city.

Advice to entrepreneurs and tech start-ups, including much of what is published on sites like GigaOm, admonish them to keep a laser-like focus on their core products. Don’t add a line of code that isn’t necessary, they insist. Don’t add a feature that you don’t have to. Focus on your core business and ignore all other distractions. Stay lean, lean, tight, tight. You can take a dozen expensive seminars on doing a lean start-up.

And yet the Downtown Project, a start-up itself, is supposed to become the Wal-Mart of urban solutions.

There is no downtown revitalization effort of any size, in any size city, that has thrown itself into providing full-blow solutions to the deepest problems facing their community. At least not within its first decade. Most never do at all.I have a reputation among economic development professionals for getting on their case about being too comfortable in their silos – too glad to say “not my problem” when it comes to the needs of the poor, of failing school districts, of the human impacts of massive, generations-long disinvestment.

But if you think that a downtown revitalization organization can single-handedly undo all these damages in less time than a car lease, I can only assume that you have never actually worked in a real disadvantaged urban place, with real disadvantaged urban people before. Money isn’t the biggest issue. Deep, trustful partner relationships are.

From following the stream of events and information, it looks to me that the Downtown Project has done a better job of reaching to, hosting, including, connecting with organizations that are directly tackling social issues, urban health, mental health, and so, on than the vast majority of conventional downtown revitalization programs in the U.S. And as the comments on the GigaOm article indicate, a very large number of other organizations would like you to remember that they’re making important contributions, too. When you don’t attract the hero worship or the hero hatred, it’s a little harder to get the national media to see that you exist.

Most comparable organizations nationwide insist that their job, their laser-like focus, has to be on the businesses and the real estate deals and the like. And that the tougher urban issues, like homelessness and mental health, are someone else’s problem, not ours. And so you find downtown organizations nationwide that give lip service to “inclusion” while at the same time trying to remove the poor or homeless from their commercial districts. Not our problem

Because of that, I have found the Downtown Project’s consistent hosting and inclusion of these organizations’ events…refreshing. And healthy. Not magic, but a healthy. And that’s a healthy step from a very young organization. They have chosen not to go to the default that so many much more established, much less experimental, much more predictableorganizations have done: they have acknowledged that, even though they can’t do everything all at once, they can contribute to the solutions. And as they mature, I suspect we’ll see much more.

Interestingly, both the GigaOm author and I have posted a picture that looks a lot like this:

The wall of Post-Its represents one of the first stages of the Downtown Project: the results of a meeting with the community (before the waves of tech illuminati that the author sneers at arrived – read: regular downtown residents). The Post-Its identify projects, businesses, ideas for improving the neighborhood

A surprising number of them have been done in the two (two!) years that have elapsed.

It’s not clear to me what the GigaOm author saw in this. What I saw is one of the most honest, taking-you-seriously public engagement efforts I have encountered any where.




Regional Planning Under The Hood Slides

Finally got the Gods of the Internets to cooperate with me!  For those of you who attended the session on the true stories behind three regional plans at the Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky regional planning conference this morning in Lexington, here you go!  And please disregard the computer fragments your might find in the hallway….

Regional Planning – Let’s Take a Look under the Hood_Final_100214

Draft for feedback: Introduction to Online Public Engagement book

While I’m currently working on a new book for Wise Fool Press tentatively titled Crowdsource Wisdom: [Deeply Profound and Yet to Be Finalized Subtitle], I’m also in discussions with a different publisher to write a book spefically about online public participation tools, methods, and other guidance.  Not sure yet when that’s going to come out, but it will be much farther in the future than the Crowdsource Wisdom book (also providing reason #937 why I need to get that one done: writing both at the same time would probably make me bald.  No one wants to see that.)

I’m struggling more with tone with this one — I want to keep it direct and personal, but I need to be a little less informal than when I write for my own platform — this publisher is a little more traditional, and while I do not want to shift back to Consultant-Speak, I do want to make sure that the voice doesn’t get in the way of the message.

So I’d be grateful for your feedback, particularly relating to that.  As you’ll see, this in an introductory chapter — designed to lay out the premise, give a sense of the structure and direction of the book, and also help the reader to understand who the author is and where she is coming from.

Feel free to give me your comments below or via email at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.  Thanks!


Introduction:  online public engagement.


Let’s start by answering the basic question:  Yes, your community, your department, your non-profit, needs to do online public engagement. No question.  Done.


How do people in your community deal with real life?  How do they find answers to questions that worry them?  How do they shop, or at least research what they need?  How do they talk to their friends?

I don’t mean that some people aren’t more comfortable with, fluent with online communication than others.  Our that some people don’t have better access than others.  Agreed.  Understood.

But use of online technologies, on the whole, cuts across age groups, income levels, ethnicities, living conditions, to a degree that renders the old line about a digital divide, by and large, a relic of yesterday’s news.  Research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust had documented this trend: Use of online technologies, especially through mobile devices, climbs steadily across the US and the world every year.  Ninety percent of Americans have at least one cell phone.  Planners working in rural communities tell me that their homebound elderly interact with the community through Facebook on tablets, rural people worldwide seek out places where satellite signals can reach them, and urban poor residents rely on cell phones for everything from news to paying bills.

So let’s put that part of the debate to bed.  Your residents and businesses live in the online world, just like they live in the real world. So if you want to get their engagement, to understand their concerns, to help them to play a meaningfut role in figuring out the future of their community, and get the benefits that you should be getting from public engagement, you need to use online tools.  They’re not a magic bullet; they’re not a replacement for in-person activities.  They’re crucial extensions of how you work in your community.


That said, however, online engagement looks to many communities like an overgrown path through an unfamilar forest.  There’s dozens of different types of strange plants with a whole range of leaves and blossoms and smells, and branches reaching out to implant  their burrs on your clothes.  You can’t tell by looking at them which ones are safe to touch or eat, although you know that the animals who live in the underbrush somehow understand the color and scent signals that differentiate safe from unsafe. And as you look ahead, you realize that the profusion and tangle of the flora prevents you from being able to clearly differentiate one type of plant from another, especially from a distance.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, you realize that your lack of knowledge means that you can’t distinguish a safe way forward from one that will give you a rash.

New technologies, whether cars or plows or internet communications, always seem to go through a period of explosion of options in their early years.  In the 1910s, automobile buyers had a choice of a huge range of vehicles basic operation choices, from gas and electric to steam engines, kerosene or electric lamps, crank starts or electric, wooden wheels, rubber tires, etc. And dozens of very small companies all over the world — visit an antique car museum, and you’ll encounter an array of names that you’ve never heard of, or names of companies that you never knew had once made cars. Some had gotten their start in making household appliances, or sewing machines, or other items, while others had evolved from carriage makers and horse-drawn bus suppliers.  And since the basic assumptions about how a car should work hadn’t yet fully congealed, they way they would by the 1950s, each of these companies made cars a little differently, often using what they had learned in their other industries to differentiate their models from others.


From where I sit, it looks to me that online public engagement is in that phase today.  I wouldn’t necessarily assume that there’s any major consolidation on the horizon — we’re talking about software, after all, not manufacturing — but we are in a period where common language, common assumptions, and a common taxonomy and selection heuristics have not taken hold.  That’s in part because “public engagement” itself doesn’t have a clear definition or universally-shared assumptions (except for the Town Hall Three Minutes at the Mic Model, which pretty much everyone admits doesn’t work).


So this book faces a tall challenge:

It needs to give you a reasonably clear view of the landscape, at least in this still-shifting moment.

It needs to give you practical strategies and tools for figuring out the best fit between your community and project needs and resources, and the various providers who may be reaching out to you.

And it needs to establish a way for us to talk in common about online public engagement, which means that we need to establish a shared understanding about what we mean by public engagement, to begin with — the reasons why we may do public engagement, what people who have put some thought into this know about how we pull people in or push people away, and the full scope of ways that we can do that more effectively than we often do (spoiler alert: the Three Minutes at the Mic model isn’t it).


So.  We have a lot to cover.       Here’s an overview of how we’re going to get there:

In Part 1, we’re going to develop that shared understanding.  We’ll explore many of the common missteps, mistaken assumptions and blind spots that lead community leaders to chose online public engagement strategies that don’t meet their needs. Then we’ll look at some of the reasons why communities often feel obligated to do online public engagement, focusing on how our residents’ lives and daily experiences tend to clash with our usual approaches to public engagement.  After that, we will unpack those experiences and use them to illuminate a new way of thinking about public engagement, both online and offline, that draws on what businesses and researchers know about how groups make decisions and how people engage with democratic processes, and we’ll establish a simple framing that we’ll use to understand our options throughout the rest of the book.

In Part 2, we will work out a comprehensive guidance for planning an online public engagement initiative.  We will start with the crucial foundational elements, such as clarifying your desired results, honestly assessing your organization’s capacity to manage an online initiative, and evaluating potential platforms against technical considerations, such as application vs. open-source approaches and ensuring accessibility.

Those first two sections will include some brief examples, but remember, online public participation as an industry is in that early churn-and-experimentation stage as I am writing this, and probably still as you are reading it. That means that an example that makes perfect sense when I wrote it might be defunct or extensively changed by the time you read about it.  Sorry about that.  To try to give you some more concrete examples, but not risk them interfering with the basic guidance of the book, Part 3 is given over to case studies of specific projects that were carried out using one of more of the commercial online public participation providers available at the time of this publication.  These case studies identify what worked — and didn’t work, or didn’t work as planned — in that context, and some indication of lessons that the participants learned from that experience.

You’ll also find URLs for the providers and information resources listed in the back, as well an a glossary of the few but probably unavoidable technical terms that work their way into the book.


Why am I writing about this?

That’s a question that I personally think any author should answer, so that you understand where that person is coming from and whether he or she is probably worth reading.  So here’s the thumbnail sketch of my story.

I usually identify myself as a planner, but my undergraduate degree is in education.  I was trained to teach English to secondary school kids, and because of where I went to college and when, the teaching methods that I learned made heavy use of a technique called small group collaborative learning. The theory behind that approach is that people understand information and learn it at a deeper level when they figure it out for themselves, and when they do that work of learning in partnership with a small group of their peers.  In the couple of years that I taught, my classrooms were generally very loud and pretty chaotic-learning, but it was pretty clear to me that the students “got” the material in a much more meaningful way when I could do that than when I was stuck having to lecture.

Like a lot of young teachers in my generation, a combination of lack of good jobs and frustrating bureaucracy led me in search of my Act II by the time I was 23.  After about eight years of doing historic preservation work, I did a masters in planning and went to work for a consulting firm.  Soon I found myself managing comprehesive plans, and since my masters concentration was in economic development, I can admit today that I wasn’t going into them with the usual obsession over land use densities and zoning implications.  What I did relate to almost immediately was that whether or not a comp plan did anything constructive (like, get passed), depended heavily on whether or not the community’s residents, business owners and the like understood what the plan was intended to achieve and played an active role in supporting it.  So I decided that getting the public as actively involved in the planning process as possible was the best way for the clients (and me) to end up with a success story.  And since the last time I had been responsible to managing the activities of a bunch of people had been in a middle school classroom, I ended up adapting the methods I had used with 13 year olds to steering committees and auditoriums full of adults.  And it worked surprisingly well.  Well, maybe not that surprisingly.

At about the same time as I was managing comp plans, I had also become the mother of two small boys. Between a demanding job and the usual chaos of a toddler-driven household, I became a pretty avid technology adopter.  I know that a lot of people who are knowledgeable about online technology have a background in programming or IT, and get excited about the gee-whiz elements of new apps and platforms.  I don’t know how to program and am generally suspicious of gee-whiz.  I started using online technologies for a very basic reason:


I was overextended, over-scheduled and overwhelmed, and anything that could let me get something done faster looked like, in all seriousness, a thread of a lifeline.


So when people tell me that they don’t think that communities need to use online technologies to engage with their residents, that it’s too hard or too complicated or too risky, and it’s good enough the way it is, and we’ll get to it eventually maybe, my first reaction is not to think about applications versus Drupal platforms, or Javascript or CSS.

My first reaction is to think about all of the hours I wasted in my clients’ council meetings waiting for the two minute update I had to give.  Or the town hall session I ran one evening where no one my own age showed up at all.

Or the sidewalk that I wanted to be installed in my neighborhood, that wasn’t because a few people protested at a meeting that I couldn’t attend… because I was either working or chasing a loud and cranky toddler that night.

As I’ll articulate more in a later chapter, we need online public participation not because it’s cool or convenient or it makes our town look like we know what’s going on.  We need online public participation — good, thoughtful, meaningful online public participation — because we need the insight, the feedback and the wisdom of the huge cross section of people who cannot or will not fit the 19th-century model that we lean on unreflectively when we assume that the people who didn’t come to the 7PM Tuesday Open House… well, they’re apathetic. They’re disengaged.  They just Don’t Care.

They might not care. Or they might care a lot.  And they might have a valuable insight, a new solution, a way to make your community better that you wouldn’t have known about without them. If you can’t hear them, you don’t know what you’re missing.

So that’s why I have paid so much attention to online public engagement over the past few years, and why have researched and written about these platforms, and used them in my own work, and maintained the only web site so far that provides a central information hub about the platforms and providers that communities can use to do online public engagement today.

And it’s why I hope you picked up this book. Thanks for doing that. I hope it does you good.











Crowdsourcing Wisdom: possible Chapter 3 (visit to First Grade)

This potential chapter for the upcoming Crowdsource Wisdom book attempts to use a first grade classroom as an example of how people need and respond to giving them a structure within which to work.  But I’m not sure it works itself — analogies are the devil.  I’d be glad to know if you think this works, or can be salvaged, or… chuckeroo.


Chapter 3: Mrs. Brenner’s classroom.


As I said in the Introduction, I started out my professional life as an English teacher.  I taught middle school for a couple of years before I started down a rather winding career track.  When I was in my undergraduate, I learned the teaching method that’s going to form the foundation for the how-to recommendations later in this work.

But before I get there, let’s contrast our usual public meeting, the way I’ve described it in the last two chapters, with Mrs. Brenner’s first grade classroom. A particularly good first grade classroom.  My older son’s first grade classroom, where I filled the age-old Room Mother responsibility, about 10 years ago.


Have you ever been around a first grader?  20 of them?  At one time?  In one room?  If you haven’t, or it’s been a while, let me paint a picture of what we’re dealing with here.

The kids come into the room more or less in a crush.  Backpacks, boots, jackets, hats, umbrellas everywhere.  Most of these kids still have to be reminded constantly to put their things away at home, let alone in school, where everything is still strange and new.

Each comes in with his or her own mental baggage, in addition to their stuff.  Some are not used to leaving their parents yet, and their fear distracts them from what they’re supposed to be doing.  Some are so excited that they can barely sit still. Some talk like grown ups.  Some suck their thumbs.  Some do both.

Skills for getting along with other kids are still works in progress.  Basic manners, like raising your hand when you want to say something, frequently get lost in the excitement, and when hand-raising does work, sometimes the hand goes up in the air before the brain knows what it was going to say.  Activities that require taking turns have less than ideal odds of turning out the way they were intended on the first try.  Tears over some slight, some bump, some quabble, occur pretty much every hour.  Impulse control is hard to come by when you’re 6.

Academic skill levels are all over the map, too.  Some kids already know how to read.  Some can’t consistently identify their letters yet.  Some struggle with the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil and trace the dotted shapes in the notebook.  Some can do pages on pages of arithmetic problems without looking up.

In this context, with this potentially chaotic mix of strengths and instabilities, skills and limitations, a first grade teacher is supposed to enable each child to reach a level of skill and content mastery by the end of the year.  Each of these hugely varying creatures must participate actively and as fully as possible in achieving that goal.  The teacher cannot do the learning and growing for them.  And at any moment, one of these buggers might burst out with something inappropriate, or fall off a chair, or spill the glue, or start wailing over a boo boo, or who knows what.  They’re cute, but they’re incredibly unpredictable.

How do you educate anyone within that context?  Here’s how.

When the kids come in with their backpacks and hats and all, each has an assigned place to put them – a hook, a shelf, labelled with their name.  At the beginning of the year, they were shown that this is where their things belong.  And that gets reinforced every day – visually and verbally.  And since most of the other kids put their things in similar places, each kid sees his or her peers modelling what they’re supposed to do.

The kids go to assigned seats (again, with a name placard on them, both to make it clear whose desk it is and to reinforce reading and writing skills).  When they walk in the room, they can see that there is an activity for them to do right away.  Maybe it’s a sentence to copy down, maybe it’s a simple math problem, maybe it’s a puzzle of a bear made by connecting dots.  The expectation is clear, and (with a little gentle prodding for the more excitable ones), the activity gets done.

On the board the kids can also see a daily schedule.  Even if they can’t read all the words and numbers yet, they soon develop a sense of the routine.  There’s a whole-class activity at the beginning where they talk as a whole group about some major issues, like what day of the week is it and whether the sun or cloud sticker should be velcroed to the Daily Weather Chart.  Then they move into a different activity – a reading group, or a math lesson, or a book read to the class by the teacher or a guest.  Some activities involve smaller groups, some the whole class together, some the students complete by themselves.

Most activities have different spaces in which they occur – reading out loud happens in a corner with a rocking chair and a fuzzy rug, group math activities in a circle of chairs with flashcards, art at a long table near the teacher’s desk.  Each activity, each space, has specific rules and expectations – we sit crosslegged on the rug, we show the flash cards to our friend on our left, we put our worksheets in the purple box when we are done.  And each activity only lasts a short time before the participants move to a different one.

For a lot of the tasks, the teacher stays nearby in case someone needs help or mediation, but the students work together or independently.  Students create their own answers, but the rules within which that task is set up quietly guide the students.  Those rules, those expectations, give the kids a structure.  It helps them understand what they are supposed to be doing and when.  Their work is their own, but they know what they are supposed to be doing and how they are supposed to do it.

And here’s the most impressive part.  That classroom, with all those little chaotic marginally-controlled humans, runs about as close to clockwork as you can imagine.  Kids move from one activity to the next with a relatively low level of fuss, they need only minimal reminders of how to do the tasks, they know where papers and musical instruments and glue go when they’re done.

The kids follow the routine not only because it’s what they were told to do, but because it gives them a sense of predictability, of clear expectations, of control.  Of being in a place where they know how succeed.  They were consistently the happiest first graders I had ever seen.

We’re going to unpack what we might learn from how good teachers work in future chapters, but for a moment, think about what the first graders learn from this classroom, beyond the reading and writing and math and all:

  • I know what I need to do to be successful.
  • I know what’s going to happen next.
  • I know how to do the work that’s in front of me
  • I know that this activity (which I might or might not like) isn’t going to last forever
  • I know that I’ll get to do something different soon
  • I know that I can do it right.

First graders have a whole lot more faith in their teachers than most adults have in their local government.  And what we ask of adults can (and should) be a whole lot more challenging than what we ask of first graders.

But that first grade classroom shows us a few fundamental things about what people, big or small, want out of group experiences – especially when they take the time to participate in a group activity that is supposed to result in something beneficial:

  • Ground rules and fairness
  • A predictable pattern of events
  • A variety of activities that use different skills
  • A situation that is set up to enable me to succeed.


In my talks, I have sometimes referred to what Mrs.Brenner did as channeling  — guiding a powerful force so that it flows in the direction where it can make the most positive impact. Think about a river: if it bursts its banks, the river waters flow uncontrolled into places where it wasn’t supposed to be – fields, cities, houses.  The flowing water has power, but it’s wasted, in a sense.  If the river flows within its channel, it can power a water wheel or a turbine, grind grain, make clean power.


My premise to you: if we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.




Crowdsourcing Wisdom, Draft Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem

I’m continuing to work on a new Tools book focused on how to do more effective public engagement, and I’m posting chapters here for your feedback.  I’m a little frustrated with this one and the fact that I came up with a lot fewer facts about public engagement than I thought I could.  So if you know of something I should be including here, please let me know!

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem


We know pretty definitively that people are not participating in local government decision-making, of any type, at anywhere near the levels that professionals and pundits would prefer.  Take a quick scan of two recent studies and findings:

  • In a survey done by the National Research Center for Governing magazine, 76% of respondents said that they had attended no public meetings in the past year.


  • Voter turnout for non-presidential elections holds consistently at under 60% of total eligible, and multiple local elections nationally have experienced voter turnouts of 20% or less.


How much public participation in local government is enough?  There’s no set answer, no easy target or simple rubric.  But general consensus is, “enough” equals… a whole lot more than this.

And while there isn’t a definitive answer for why people aren’t participating, there’s a whole lot of evidence indicating that it’s not because they’re blissfully delighted by everything that their governments are doing:

  • Frustration with government at all levels has remained at high levels for more than a decade
  • 66% of national voters currently believe that “the country is headed down the wrong track.”
  • A “survey of more than 1400 public officials and local community leaders in California reveals both groups feel that public comment agendas are dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks.”

So.  Significant portions of our communities aren’t participating in even the most basic ways, and significant portions of our communities aren’t happy with how things, in general, are going.  What do we make of this?

You can find a thousand pundits, professors and assorted talking heads who will give you their learned advice on this topic.  And from having read and heard a whole lot of them over the years, I’m going to posit to you a relatively unproveable hypothesis: If you polled all those august figures, I suspect you would find most of them assuming or asserting the following root causes of that disaffectedness:

  • The nasty tone of Politics, with its smear campaigns and sound bites, has turned people off on government.
  • People increasingly limit their interactions to people who agree with them, and avoid situations where they might have to interact with people who have different opinions than they do.
  • Public policy questions are more complex than ever, and as the media and politicians over-simply issues and focus on trying to yell louder than the other, people give up hope that they have any ability to understand or influence the situation.
  • People are apathetic.  They just don’t care about the future or their community. They’d rather pay attention to celebrity gossip and cat videos.


Probably some truth in all of those.  Angry politics clearly energizes a party’s base and alienates most others, residential patterns and social media channels make it easier to only deal with people who look and think like you do, the Big Issues that face us are complex and we’re not getting much useful help understanding them, and…


well, we do like those cat videos.  You have to admit that.


The problem with these assumptions are threefold: First, they’re blanket statements, which by their nature means they’re going to be wrong a lot.  Second, they assume that the poisons affecting political participation in national issues are the same as those impacting the local communities that you and I must deal with directly every day.  As we’ll discuss, I don’t think that’s fully the case.  Third, and worst, they infer that the issues are Just Too Big.  Impossible for little you in your little burg to fix.  C’est la vie.


I’ve spent 20 years working with communities.  I’ve worked with the very large and the very tiny, wealthy and desperately poor, on issues that have ranged from routing cars to rebuilding a local economy.  And this is what I think is probably keeping your residents from making it to your meetings and participating in your community:


  • They’re so overextended that making your meeting means they have to give up something else important.  Our models of how we do democracy date from an era when the only people who participated in democratic debate were white men – typically, white men with a farm or other business that someone else could keep operating while they were at the meeting.  Think about it: for every man who showed up at a township/school board/ city council meeting in the 1800s, how many wives, women, children, workers, slaves, hired hands, you name it, were back home running the shop?  If you’re the white male in that situation, you can sit and debate ad nauseum.  No classes to get to, no emails to answer, no children to pick up from soccer, no jobs with evening shifts.  How many of us have that today?


That means that the opportunity cost – the value of what else we could be doing with our time – is a whole lot higher than it was for the people who sat through our council meetings 120 years ago.  When we want them to come to a meeting, we forget all about the very high cost of their time.


  • They figure out quickly that we’re not really trying to talk to them.  When our residents do come, they find themselves in a web of jargon.  Remember that comprehensive plan meeting?  What impact are different levels of residential density or Floor Area Ratios going to have on their everyday lives?  Why does it matter whether that square on the map has the residential or the industrial color on it, if we’re talking about 20 years from now?


Why should I spend my time on this?  No one has really explained how it impacts me.  And don’t forget, I’m paying a high, high price in terms of my time to be here.  Looks pretty soon like I made the wrong decision.


  • We’re subtly (or not subtly) insulting them.  We tell them that their feedback matters, and then we ignore what they tell us in the final report.  We invite them to an hourlong meeting, and then we leave 5 minutes for questions (then we tell them that if they didn’t get to talk they can give written feedback, but they have to do it on a note card with one of those golf pencils that never works.  Then we use all our responses to defend the Plan, no matter what).  We ask them to help us create a vision, to “dream,” to “Think Big!” but then we quietly sidestep the fact that those dreams that we invited talked about things that we don’t have the power, or the resources, or the political will, to do.


We kinda hope they just forget.


In a sense, we’re treating the adults of our communities the way we too often treat children – even worse, “problem” children.  We assume that they have nothing better that they could be doing with their time, we assume that it’s their job to figure out how to fit into our world, and we assume that We Always Know Best.


Good teachers know that this approach usually doesn’t work.  Good teachers figure out how to meaningfully engage the students.  Good teachers don’t always do that perfectly, but they do it a lot better than other teachers.  And a lot better than we often do.  So perhaps we should go back to school.




Questions and Answers about Online Public Engagement (Part 2: Chat-a-palooza)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

During the presentations there was a great chat stream going on the webinar platform where participants were asking questions and even answering each others’ questions — even when I ask the presenter couldn’t do the talk and keep up with them at the same time.   We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos

I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.


The participants’ chat lines are preceded by >.  Sometimes there’s more than one.  Names are removed to protect the innocent.  My responses are in bold italic type.


>I would be curious to know how many individuals on the call actually work with local govt officials. And if they are using online….we are main center in Illinois and there is little that is done electronically.

> It seems like a lot of communities are using online material, including twitter accounts to bring residents into the discussion

>We are not seeing that they are utilizing in decision making.

I’ve seen surveys regarding incidence of use of online tech platforms by local governments, but I can’t think of a methodologically robust survey of local governments asking about barriers – why they’re not.  A lot of us have our own working theories, but I don’t think anyone has been asking that.  Does anyone know of one – or know of an organization that might be talked into it?


>Won’t most jurisdictions want to purchase one tool and use it for all purposes?

>I think that in most cases that strategy would be ill-advised. there is no one-size-fits-all tool. some consolidation is natural, so maybe aim for a few select tools to cover your bases (think few-sizes-fit-most).

>I agree… I just know what happens in government

One question I have been asking myself has been whether we need a more sophisticated/robust system for fitting various platforms together.  Right now Granicus has an “app store” that offers a few things like Textizen, and some one-off combinations have been occurring, but it’s not systematic.  Very catch as catch can. 


>How do laws regulalting public meetings, such as the requirement of providing advance notice, affect online engagement, especially if it’s live (synchronous)?

I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but I am not aware of anyone trying to apply public meeting rules to an asynchronous online engagement.  My suspicion is that those situations are not legally differentiated from a survey.  If it’s live – and I don’t know of many significant live online engagements other than perhaps a tweet-up – I would assume that public meeting notices would apply unless some legal wizard tells you otherwise. At least, that’s the direction I would go for a truly live event. From a practical standpoint, however, I haven’t seen a live platform that I would expect to work very well with a diverse group.  A chat group like this one, dominated by professionals, is chaotic enough. 


>Would love to hear some suggestions/strategies on how to connect people, populations and places that are historically disconnected from technology.

>For any particular audience, first check their level of access. technology unevenly distributed, yes, but sometimes in surprising ways. homeless/poor/minority might still be on cell phones, so use of texting could be a good option. starts with research.

Exactly. I didn’t get very deep into this, but SMS (texting) is emerging as probably the most important strategy for reaching deeply disadvantaged populations.  This is a central component of the technology leapfrog that I mentioned that we have seen in Africa (we’ve covered some of that at EngagingCities).  As far as I can tell, many platforms have built platforms that work reasonably well on a mobile device (I think that’s a core need today), but Textizen is the only one I know of that has put significant effort into meaningfully including people who use non-smart phones. SMS is becoming kind of the universal language, in a sense. 


>Not to mention, public meetings can be scary!

Amen, sister.  J   We who deal with them all the time forget that.  I always remind myself of how my mother, who would have been 81 this year, would have felt about public meetings.  Scary is the right word for it.


>Also, something that I come up against is determining when in-person engagement is best and where digital engagement is the best strategy or more complementary.

This isn’t the definitive word on the topic, but for what it’s worth here’s my rules of thumb:  (1) Online options need to be available as much as possible for the sake of people who can’t do in person meetings, like the homebound or people who cannot speak in public.  (2) Deliberation – rich discussion, idea-sharing, collaborative decision-making—seems at this point to still work best in an in-person setting.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a large group or a town hall – I’m a big fan of cooperative small group activities myself, even with big crowds.  (3)  Online tools are great for sorting, prioritizing, voting – methods that rely on aggregation of individual results.    


>We have also had good success with libraries as venue to have small conversations that then let people enter their online input at the library’s computer.  This is why the community partners are essential conduits to help reach people where they are and help make the link to the online input mechanism.

>Don’t forget that almost ALL public libraries offer public access computers.

>But librarians need to be asked about how many people come into the library for the purpose of using the technology…

> Partner with public libraries to reach people who aren’t online

>We’ve had good luck engaging people using kiosks at libraries. We’ve also convinced the library to make the engagement tool the home screen of library computers and in that case we engaged about 13,000 people.

Yes – the only thing I would caution against is using the public library as the default method for reaching a non-computer-owning population. Again, the relative inexpensiveness of smart phones and tablets, and their ease of use, might cut into the need for reliance on a library computer, depending on the task.  And do remember that there is sometimes a time limit on using library computers. 

Like he said, the most important part is partnering – not just with the library, but with the population that you might _assume_ would be likely to use the resources at the library – to make sure your assumptions are actually borne out by reality


> Mulitlingual engagement?

>If you don’t have multi-language capcity in-house, consider partnering with other organizations and ask them to host your engagement process on their digital turf.


To be honest I haven’t seen many local governments handle this well.  I’m not sure how clearly this part came out in the presentation– there’s been a tendency to rely on Google Translate, but as I’ve learned at EngagingCities, about half the time you end up with total garble. There is no replacement I know of for actual human translation.  Interestingly, your local or regional economic development people might be a good source for translation guidance, as more and more of those sites are working on this.


>Conference calls using ordinary phone lines are another “virtual” way to engage, especially if they make use of some of the better call-management technologies out there.

Has anyone seen a local government use a conference call for general public engagement?  I haven’t.


>Seconding … that many “hard to reach” communities are online but their technology or platform of choice may not be one that municipalities are familliar with. At City of Toronto, we had good success connecting with graffitti community by building relationships with them on their own message boards. Unlikely they would have participated on a City-built platform

Excellent!  I was really glad to read this!  Marketing people always say that you have to put the message where the audience you want will see it.  Great example of that.


>Good ideas/points, folks…thanks. Generally, using multiple engagement methods is how I approach this…what works with who, and how. We’re after a balanced, representative data set…sometimes it takes a LOT of energy and resources to get thatr kind of data so the decision around what to engage the public on is a critical, early decision point. Has anyone experienced public engagement events using a large tech setup using clickers, which would get around the access issue for some.

The clickers have been around for probably 15 years. The problems I see with the clicker technologies are (1) you have to be there in person, which gets back to a lot of the core participation barriers, (2) they are only useful for basically real-time surveying, not for getting any richer feedback or ideation, (3)They can actually backfire on efforts to look “inclusive” because peoples’ only option is the multiple choices given in the survey.  I’ve seen them irritate an audience on occasion, rather than engage them.  Again, it depends on the context, including the level of public interest in the topic and the range of other opportunities to engage more deeply.   


>Shouldn’t government demand of its online engagement suppliers to make their technologies talk to each other better? I don’t see so many platforms integrations yet (UK perspective) but maybe this is the sustainable future for the industry and will make the customer choice easier and safer?

I think this is a very interesting point.  There is some early thinking in the online engagement supplier community around this, but frankly a lot are still trying to find their footing.


>Our regional transportation entity has been asking the public for their vision for transportation. However, an individual (IP address) is only permitted to respond once, so I couldn’t add second thoughts. Is this a good idea?

>Tracking/restricting participation via IP address is probably not the most elegant way to do this. however, the alternative is proper user registration, which may pose a sligthly higher barrier to entry. trade-offs, trade-offs… 😉 

I agree with Tim on this one – and an IP address restriction would be particularly more problematic because I would suspect that it would eliminate more than one person responding from a public computer, like in the library, or even in a household, where multiple people may use the same laptop.  So I’d definitely push back against anyone who proposed that.  Most of the commercial platforms I am aware of have some sort of login – a username, at the minimum. Obviously if someone really wanted to game the results, they could create multiple usernames, but they could use multiple IP addresses, too. 


>Is there a matrix of the different tools and what objectives they help with, such as geography?

I’m trying to work on one.  The Online Public Engagement Emporium was a first step toward getting all that information together.


>Oh, significant problem if people are participating/commenting and don’t see that their comments are being read/used…

>Like many things in digital engagement, this may not primarily be a technology issue. it’s first and foremost a planning/design and, ultimately, a culture issue. if you value letting your participants know how their input was used, you will find a way to do so. does not have to be tightly integrated with the same tool you’re using for collecting that input.

Absolutely!  A couple of the platforms actually have that built into them – they basically establish a way for a moderator to identify things like “we’re working on that” “we don’t have that power, but X does,” etc. 

The problem that I have encountered comes back to that capacity issue: responding like that requires that staff take the time to create those responses – and since the staffer responsible for that probably doesn’t have all those answers in his/her head, there’s a research and coordination requirement, which can be very time consuming.  Plus they’re afraid of giving out the wrong information.  I know that MindMixer, for example, pushes hard in its training to encourage administrators to do that, but I know that when I have managed projects I’ve also gotten significant resistance from the local government staff not wanting to. 

>In the evolving landscape of social media, what is ethical? Two attorneys look at the law as it stands and compare it with the AICP Code of Ethics. Explore the ethical considerations for both planners and planning commissioners  at: https://www.planning.org/store/product/?ProductCode=STR_TSME

I have not done this webinar myself, although I have taught AICP Ethics a bunch of times.  Here’s the short version that I always tell my clients: anything said on social media is basically the same as talking to a person who is recording you on video while you are talking.  A choice that would be ethical in that context is probably going to be ethical on social media.  Be transparent, admit what you know and don’t know, disclose any conflicts of interest ASAP.  My guess is that would cover the majority of situations.


 The most crucial piece I think is to make sure that people have both online and offlne options. One approach I’d like to see tried more often is to target in -person participation to higher level deliberation and use the online tools to gather the ideation .


>Can you say anything about the value of gaming in online civic engagement? I got the idea from World Without Oil…or encourage creative responses

We talked in the webinar about gaming as an incentive to get people to participate on an ongoing basis through points, leaderboards, rewards for participation.  MindMixer has done a particularly good job of that, although I don’t know that anyone has _proven_ that these tactics increased public involvement in the platform or changed the quality/frequency/type of participation.  I think that would be a very interesting study. 

The other piece of gamification that came up briefly are more scenario-navigating “games” that are designed to walk people through information and options in a more accessible manner than giving them a big document to read.  Any of the scenario-evaluating tools, including the budget simulators that a lot of platforms offer, can be considered “games” in this manner. We’ve covered some pretty interesting models in Brazil and eastern Europe that are using gaming strategies.

If people are particularly interested in this topic, I’d recommend two sources to explore.  One is the Emerson Game Lab at Emerson College — http://engagementgamelab.org/.  The other is the United Nations Development Programme, which has been doing interesting work using gaming tools on a whole range of issues.  I’d search http://www.undp.org/ for the term “game,” which will get you a variety of projects if you look through the results.   


>ULI uses Legos for urban planning

Just as an FYI, I’ve found that old-fashioned wooden blocks work better than Legos.  People get to the essence of what they’re trying to get across faster and they don’t get as bogged down in whether they need an eight-bump piece or a ten-bumper to finish their masterpiece.  J



Questions and answers about Online Public Engagement from NCDD (Part 1: Pre-questions)

Last week I had a great time teaching a webinar with Susan Stuart Clark of Common Ground for the National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD).  We were talking about online strategies for getting people involved in local government planning and decision-making, and we had close to 100 people participation.

In the week before the webinar, NCDD asked for questions from the people who would be attending, and man… we got a ton. We only had an hour for the session so there were a lot of questions that probably got lost in the wash of participation.  So I went back through them after the webinar and made sure that I had at least given some kind of response to each one.  I initially did this so that NCDD could share it with the participants, but I figured many of you would find it interesting as well.

As most of you know, using online methods to improve how people participate in the life of their community is a major interest of mine.  It’s led me to edit EngagingCities, and it also led to the creation of a web site called the Online Public Engagement Emporium. If you’re interested in using online platforms but don’t know where to start, I might humbly recommend you start there… because I made it to fill the information gap and start to address the confusion and chaos that comes with a whole new field of practice that’s being populated by tech start-ups.  It’s a recipe for energy, and innovation, and a good deal of confusion, and a modest helping of chaos.

Tomorrow’s post will share my responses to the very lively chat that occurred during the webinar –which I also think you’ll find interesting.  I’m currently working on a new book about doing better public engagement, both on- and off-line, and I’m also talking with a publisher about doing a book about online public engagement methods specifically.  So if you have burning questions, or issues that you wish someone would address, or other general bright ideas, please let me know.


The Pre-webinar questions about Online Public Engagement (my responses are in bold italics)

We use [a couple of platforms] but are looking at new options. We’ve done live chats but don’t get much response….much better with these tools.  The most challenging part of online civic engagement is developing the questions/format.

That’s very true…worthy of a whole ‘nother training!


Prior to moving to the US I worked with a number of local government groups in the UK who were utilising online engagement methods. I’m keen to hear about how Local Government is doing it in the US.

I’m no expert on UK and Commonwealth public engagement methods, but here’s my two shillings: UK and Commonwealth countries seem to be bound by a pretty formal definition of “consultation.”  As you have probably found, this isn’t a term that’s used in the US.  Without having memorized the details, it appears to me that UK/Commonwealth governments are required to do “consultation” on a very wide range of government decisions, but that the “consultation”  obligation is largely limited to public comment and surveying.  I’ve seen some idea-generating exercises (you’ll sometimes see the term “ideation” coming from some of the platforms developed in the Commonwealth, but it seems relatively limited in scope–more focused on generating responses to government-initiated questions than in generating totally new ideas. 

The downside in the US is that, except for transportation projects that fall under FWHA requirements, the obligation to do public participation is pretty scattered –higher in some places, all but nonexistent in others.  And depends a lot on the type of issue,the type of government or agency, etc.   The upside to that is that US providers don’t seem to be specifically trying to meet a mandated process, but rather trying to address a need that they perceive in communities on the ground.  So I think you get a rather wider range of  different approaches, once you start digging into them. 


I would be interest in some discussion about public sector transparency re: data collected via these web based tools. Can you provide examples of what you consider to be best practices regarding the ways in which government shares its findings or closes the loop by making stakeholder feedback available for stakeholder review?

Most web based tool providers would probably tell you that all of the results should be made available to the public – that’s basic good government and good surveying methodology.  Some of the platforms facilitate that more than others. In general, I think the best strategies are the ones that allow you to (1) connect the sharing of results directly to the initial idea or feedback, (2) makes it easy to generate charts and infographics, such as through a built-in wizard, and (3) allow you to generate a full report of the results easily.  You need to provide both a summary and a full detailed results for both accessibility and transparency. 


What are the best tools for online engagement and prioritization of issues (allowing for viewable conversation and ranking)?

A lot of them accommodate some form of ideal-generating, conversation and priority-setting.  MindMixer probably has the best overall interface right now – graphically appealing, well organized, lots of options for responses, and the ability to add on to or supplement someone else’s proposal.   But that doesn’t mean they’re the best fit for every situation.  BrightPages from Urban Interactive Studio, for example, allows you to tie feedback directly back into a bite-sized section of a document, and Crowdbrite’s sticky-note based interface makes feedback on physical planning issues pretty easy, even for people who don’t want to write a paragraph.  And there’s several others.


What barriers do you see regarding the open meetings act and Freedom of Information Act in utilizing on-line and virtual portals for government engagement. I’m concerned about how local government use of online engagement tools meets the requirements of “Open Meeting Laws” or “Sunshine Laws”.

I’m not a lawyer, but it has been my understanding that anything in an online or virtual platform is subject to FOIA requirements.  Since it’s all online, such a request should actually be easier to respond to than paper files, but unless there’s something really special going on, it’s as subject to public scrutiny as any public meeting record. With regard to open meeting requirements and public notice, so far it looks to me like it probably depends on whether the online activity is at a specific time or available to access on demand over a long period of time.  

 In the case of a specific online event (I can’t say I’ve seen many local governments do this, but I suppose it’s possible), my presumption would be that you should adhere to your usual public meeting notice requirements, including making provisions for anyone who may not be able to participate due to disability (for example, someone who can’t type or needs a translator).  In the case of  a site that invites participation whenever people want to and is available for a long period of time, it seems like it’s most likely to be treated like a survey.  But I’m not aware of any definitive case law yet.  


It would be great to have a list of online engagement tools and resources you use and recommend

The best source I can point you to is http://onlinepublicengagementemporium.com.  I made that site because I couldn’t find anything else that summarized the current state of the industry – except for a white paper that I used to produce that was a pain in the neck because it was always out of date about three seconds after I released it. The web site doesn’t try to give formal recommendations, but it does try to give you a narrative sense of how each platform works and what it seems to be best suited for.  No guarantees it’s perfectly up to date either – in fact, I can more reliably guarantee that it’s not – but it’s the best source I can point you to.  We’ve got plans for more, but just keeping it reasonably up  to date is a big challenge. 


Do you know of any analysis of the ROI of online engagement compared to more traditional engagement tactics?

I don’t.  Like a lot of areas of local governance/public engagement, we as a profession generally haven’t done a great job of measuring impacts.  I do think that the overwhelming practitioner experience, however, has been that it’s not an either/or – online alone would miss some important voices, just like in person-only methods do. I thnk of it this way: we talk to people, and send emails, and tweet and text and use lots of different communication methods in the course of a day in our regular lives.  There’s no reason why an online/offline divide should exist in our community lives that doesn’t exist in our real lives. 


“Question 1: The City of Toronto is just piloting an ideas manager tool (e.g. Mindmixer, Ideascale, etc.) and so I’m especially interested in understanding success factors for this kind of tool – what issues are most engaging, what audiences are most engaged on this kind of platform?

Idea generation and management seems to need the following the most:

  • A clear and energetic interface that doesn’t look overly “official” – that gives the visual impression that new ideas are welcome.
  • A clear and energetic interface that is as intuitive as possible for people to understand and use.  You don’t want to create a big learning barrier – you want people to feel like they can get their ideas down without having to learn a whole software system first.
  • An interface that allows for types of input other than a big block of text.  We tend to forget that a very large number of people aren’t fully comfortable writing a paragraph of text.  They might find typing burdensome, or they worry about their spelling and grammar, or they simply don’t do that in their everyday lives and it looks like a huge an onerous chore.  Even highly-educated people can look at a web page that asks them to type a block of text and their immediate reaction becomes “Ugh, I don’t want to do that!”  Depending on the issue, strategies that allow people to upload photos or videos, write brief statements or lists, etc. can keep us from losing a big piece of what we do idea-generating activities to do
  • A system that allows people to respond to other people’s ideas in a whole variety of ways.  “Liking” is important because that helps generate support, but the opportunity to expand on ideas, extend them, challenge assumptions, etc. is critical to creating a rich and meaningful body of information. 
  • A mechanism for measuring the relative level of support for different ideas.  If you don’t have some sort of sorting process to identify the top priorities or the strongest areas of concensus, then what you come out of the process with is a laundry list – an undifferentiated assortment of demands, dreams, wishes, etc. that doesn’t give the people who have to make decisions about policy any intelligent place to start.  When that happens, the process is usually dead in the water. 

With regard to the types of questions that get higher levels of participation, obviously anything that has a clear and direct impact on their lives is going to get more response than things that are abstract or vague.  Most of the time, if we frame the issues in terms of things that people care about, rather than in terms of our usual technical jargon, we can get much more participation.  I did a project one time where we were trying to get people’s engagement in questions around a zoning code rewrite… about as boring as you can get.  But by shifting the questions away from the usual talk of density, non-conforming uses, etc., and focusing instead on how people live and work every day in your communities, we ended up getting a ton of very valuable engagement… and the final project had huge community support.  Participation in idea-generating seems depends more on the ease of use of the platform and the relevance of the issue than anything else.  MindMixer does a regular evaluation of the aggregate participation characteristics across all of the projects that are using their platform, and the average age of participant nationwide is usually around 40.  So it’s not particularly skewed to younger participants, like some people theorized early on.  


Question 2: One of the issues we sometimes have when using online engagement tools is an overwhelming response from one particular group/perspective. I’m interested in learning about strategies and tactics for managing that kind of situation within an online environment.”

There’s a mechanical  strategy, as it were, and there’s a tactical strategy.  And there’s a philosophical question as well.   

Mechanically, it may be possible to design the feedback so that people have to identify their areas of interest.  To use a relatively simple example, if it’s a survey tool, there might be a required question that asks people to identify whether they support a particular organization or perspective.  As long as it’s anonymous, that should not be threatening (although sometimes people don’t believe you when you say a survey is anonymous, so that may be a point that needs to be proven).  But you should be able in most survey tools to cross-tab responses and see whether two responses were highly correlated, which should make clear any bias.   

Tactically, the most important step is to make sure that a strong invitation to participate is made to a wide cross section of the community, including the particular group that is most interested and others as well.  This gets back to the in-person elements of good engagement: building relationships, partnering with organizations that represent overlooked populations, engaging with people in the way that has the most relevance to them, not just what has the most relevance to you. 

Finally—and this is probably controversial and doesn’t  fit everywhere – but it might be worth considering whether the overwhelming response from a subgroup might indicate that the issue matters to these people and not to others.  And sometimes that’s valuable information in and of itself. 


I am interested in hearing from people:  Which single online tool is sorely missing, in general, from use by local governments?

The biggest thing that is missing so far is a user-friendly, non-high-literacy-dependent platform for facilitating deliberation.  And no, I don’t know exactly what that will look like.  But I think we need it.  I’ve seen a little bit of use of things like Google Hangout, but that’s still pretty inadequate.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to see us do more online than ask for ideas and set priorities.    


How can we use technology to get citizens talking with each other, not just at government?

The MindMixer ideation strategy that I mentioned earlier is probably the closest thing we have to that talking to each other strategy that I’ve seen so far.  I’ve seen some interesting conversations develop on that platform as people respond to and expand on each others’ ideas.  And there’s one called Ethelo that is getting some limited use in government deliberations settings, and a platform in development that’s based on the National Issues Forum deliberation process.  And there is a platform called e-Deliberation that does do a methodologically robust deliberation process online, but it’s an approach that’s very text-focused and designed for smaller groups.   But all of those involve such a high level of fluency in online written communication that I’m not 100% comfortable recommending them for general public engagement yet. 


“Looking forward to dialing in. You probably know both these folks but they are two of my Herod of participating and tech, Tiago Peixoto and Hollie Gilman: http://democracyspot.net/2014/08/06/technology-and-citizen-engagement-friend-or-foe/ http://twitter.com/hrgilman

Two of the best.  I excerpt them both at EngagingCities all the time.  J


Is dumbing down a necessary part of public online engagement?

No.  Speaking in layperson’s language, yes.  Communicating clearly, yes.  Establishing a process that allows everyone who’s participating to understand what they’re trying to achieve and what the end goals are, yes.  Dumbing down, no. 


While so much is being done with technology to engage every day citizens there are still so many who are not “plugged in”. How do we use technology to reach those citizens?

I think the key thing to remember is that (1) people are much more plugged in than we might think they are, and (2) they’re plugged in in a whole host of different ways, from computers to tablets to touch screens in the supermarket to apps that let them pay bills and give feedback via text from a basic cell phone. 

The key is to reach in a multi-faceted fashion, and not assume that everyone who’s not sitting at a desk all day is somehow “Not doing technology.”  The assumption of a have/have not digital divide is pretty outdated now.  They’re probably using something – the key is to understand what they are using and how, and take the conversation to them there.  

Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.


I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out www.oki2014.com

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out www.txplanning.org/

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

Aaaand: another place to find me: Medium and LinkedIn Publishing

Just to let you know that I’ve started publishing selected writings at Medium.com.  I’m still not sure whether I _like_ Medium myself, but I know some people are preferring that interface.  So, just trying to keep the customer satisfied…

Also, I’ve been publishing other selected items at LinkedIn.  That’s actually been interesting in terms of the response and the feedback. which has been insightful.

If you want to follow on Medium, you can find my stuff at https://medium.com/@dellarucker

And if you can’t find me on LinkedIn but want to, check https://www.linkedin.com/today/author/9172984  I think that will give you my list of posts, but with LinkedIn’s unexplainable clunkiness, who really knows?


I’m slow but I get there: new presentations and stuff now on Slideshare

Even a tech hound like me gets overloaded with “platforms” sometimes.  I’ve been resisting posting to SlideShare because… I don’t know, because I post a hell of a lot of stuff all over. And I could never get the login right.  And whatever.


So, I finally dragged my butt into the new millenium and uploaded several recent presentations to SlideShare.  As you know if you’ve seen me speak, my presentations tend to run to lots of pictures and few words.  So while I think the uploaded presentations will give you a sense of what the session was about, in a lot of cases that by itself isn’t going to lead you to a high level of enlightenment.  The good news is that for a lot of my talks, you can

  • view video,
  • listen to an audio recording,
  • read a summary of the thing that I had previously written on that topic, and (soon)
  • pick up a Wisdom Single that gives a brief but more detailed write-up on that topic.

I’ll try to do a better job of keeping the SlideShare updated.  Really and for true.  In the meantime, if you want to check out a few of my recent presentations, you’ll find a few embeds below.

Have fun!

[slideshare id=38456237&doc=ridingthewaveaug2014-140828102456-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38458043&doc=leadersorfeedersrucker072314-140828111159-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456083&doc=publicpartic20ncdd082614-140828102108-phpapp01]

[slideshare id=38456707&doc=strategicplanningannotatedoedamar2014-140828103631-phpapp01&type=d]

[slideshare id=38456504&doc=economicdevelopmentsjunkfoodignite-140828103118-phpapp01]

Instigatin’: An Informal Agenda for the Next Wave of Economic Development

A few weeks ago, I was invited to throw my hat in the ring  to be considered by the Board of Directors Nominating Committee of the  International Economic Development Council, an organization that I’ve been active in for several years.  I tend to balk at board invitations more than I used to these days, but given my interest in the evolution and future of economic development, I figured it was worth a shot.

But, given everything that I’ve written about my concerns with how we practice economic development over the past few years, I determined that I needed to go into this as transparently as possible — laying my concerns and interests on the table as directly as I could.  The application asked for two essays in response to questions, and I tried to write my responses so that…well, so that they know what they’re getting into with me, I suppose.  🙂  All in favor of truth in advertising.


Below are the two essays I submitted.  I’m sharing these with you because (1) I think I ended up with a pretty decent short summary of my take on the issues facing this organization and  the economic development profession, (2) I do seriously think it’s important to be clear about my agenda as long as there’s a chance I will end up on this board, (3) if I’m all wet, I’d like someone to let me know.  Thanks.


  1. What is your interest in serving as a director and your anticipated commitment to the Council?


My interest in serving as a director stems from my observations of IEDC’s membership and organization leadership over the past several years.   Between collaborations with committee peers, close coordination with staff and general involvement in the economic development industry through consulting and published writing over the last few years, I have come to a few basic conclusions that led me to decide to take on this obligation:


  • The economic development profession, similar to other professions that have responsibility for the future of communities, appears to be facing a significant sea change.  Due to fundamental shifts in macro and local economic factors, an increasing understanding of the interconnection of factors like education, urban design and effective governance, budget pressures and the transformative effects of new communication technologies, the economic development profession as a whole must figure out how to provide meaningful benefits to communities, given these new factors.
  • IEDC is the most visible, most comprehensive and most well-managed organization relating to economic development as a whole. As a result, the needed growth and continued evolution of the economic development profession will need to be led by IEDC.
  • Figuring out how to pivot is hard for any organization, particularly one that has a successful history and members and staff who care about their mission.  As a result, addressing these challenges will require thoughtful and well-considered evaluation of options.

I think that my best benefits to my fellow Directors would be as follows


  • Through my work and writing, I have the opportunity to pay very close attention to emerging issues in entrepreneurship, small business, technology, local government management and urban planning.  I maintain close relationships with a very wide range of organizations, from the American Planning Association to emerging tactical economy and Buy Local interests.  I am in a unique position to be able to help Directors and staff identify emerging challenges and opportunities and build partnerships with others who may be addressing the same.
  •  Because of this range of experience, I have learned to think critically about the effectiveness and impact of conventional and new approaches, and have worked with communities in many states to sort through and select appropriate responses to economic issues. This sorting and analyzing skill should be of value to the Directors as they face future decisions.
  • Because I have written so much about my perceptions of economic development issues over the past few years, I am aware of a heightened responsibility to make sure that my statements and actions in real life are consistent with the assertions I have made in public.  For this reason, the Directors can be confident that I will participate actively, probe issues in a direct but sensitive manner, and play an active role in helping the Directors make sound decisions.  I do not have a reputation for being a passive participant.


  1. What do you believe are the most important challenges/opportunities facing IEDC today and how do you plan to assist IEDC to address the challenges and/or capitalize on the opportunities?


As I noted above, it has been my experience and my conviction that the economic development profession, like most of the other professions that have responsibility for managing the future of communities, is currently facing a strong suit of factors that will require significant change in the approaches and methods that professionals use.  Not making these changes appears from my perspective to risk losing relevance to other professions and approaches that are attempting to address the same fundamental issues that economic development is intended to address.  In many cases, these approaches have had their genesis in frustration over perceived lack of impact resulting from conventional economic development approaches.  As a result, it appears to me that IEDC faces the following opportunities:

  •  Building improved relationships with other community profession organizations, including the APA, Main Street, local goods and services interests and others, will help strengthen IEDC’s ability to access new effective ideas and broaden its organizational reach.  There have been several collaborations of this type that I am aware of, but the opportunity exists for much more effective collaboration.  I can use my broad national and international relationships to help enable that.
  •  I think that the organization is going to need to increase its visibility in the broader universe of community professions.  The relative lack of awareness of IEDC that I have encountered among people doing work that intersects economic development nationwide has been a surprise to me, and it appears that there is a perception that IEDC only addresses a very narrow range of economic development practices that may be increasingly out of step with what other types of community professionals are doing on the ground to impact economic issues.  Again, my relationships with these professionals should help understand and build awareness of IEDC’ potential connections.
  • Because of the above, it appears to me that the IEDC training manuals and the CEcD certification process are due for close evaluation and rebooting.  Between materials that are frequently acknowledged to be out of date and inconsistent training quality (due in part to the disconnect between the materials and practice), significant improvements appear to be necessary to maintain the organization’s relevance, particularly in the face of other organizations that are providing certifications.  Additionally, the very low pass rates that typically follow exam adminstrations, and my own experience grading all parts of the exam, indicate to me that the content and structure of the examinations need to be evaluated.  As an ex-teacher, I’m very aware that a flawed test results in an inaccurate measure of whether a person has learned the necessary content, and my understanding anecdotally has been that frustrating experiences with the CEcD exam may be pushing some potential members away from both the CEcD and IEDC in favor or other professional organizations.  From my perspective, this would appear to be an issue that the organization may need to evaluate to protect its own relevancy, if nothing else.



My interview about online tour platforms for cities and neighborhoods via Downtown Reporter (extra lesson included)

A couple of months ago I did an interview with Downtown Reporter about emerging online tools for guiding people around a city, downtown or neighborhood.  It’s a potentially effective tool – -easy for visitors to access , easy for a large or small organization to get up and running, relatively cheap (especially compared to those thousands of brochures you used to publish and leave sitting in boxes!), and perhaps most importantly, easy to update (the lousiest thing about most print maps or business guides.  Obsolescene usually half a minute after they come out of the box.)

Inexplicably, however, this publication is not online.  Can’t get it.  I can get a PDF of the pages that I took a photo of and posted below, but that’s it.  Not to tell someone else how to run their publication, but that’s just a little, how shall we say… ironic.  Hopefully that will change for Downtown Reporter  soon

Anyways, if you’re interested in seeing what I had to say about three platforms for putting a great tour of your town online, check out the article below.  And if you run a newsletter yourself…It’s not hard to get your publication on the web.  A WordPress platform will do the job easily, and for cheap/free, depending on how hard you try.  And you don’t have to try very hard.  Your good information and hard work go a whole lot farther that way.  *rant completed*


downtown promotion reporter p 3.jpeg downtown promotion reporter p 2.jpeg downtown promotion reporter p 1

Join me and NCDD to talk about the state of online public engagement (free!) August 26

The good folks at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation are kindly hosting Susan Stuart Clark and I for a free webinar exploring how communities across the world are using online public participation tools to plan better, solve problems better and get people meaningfully engaged in the life of their community.  Here’s the description from NCDD:

An increasing number of local governments are adding different forms of online engagement to their public participation activities. There is a proliferation of tools being offered by different vendors, each trying to establish a unique positioning. Join Della Rucker and Susan Stuart Clark as they review examples of how local governments are using online engagement, the state of the industry, key factors to consider in planning and implementing online engagement – and how online engagement can be used to complement and enhance in-person dialogue.

The session has been designed to allow for plenty of time for Q&A and group discussion. We are especially interested in NCDD member experiences with online engagement and local government. Click here to register.

Want to do some reading ahead of time?

By the way, you do not have to be a dues-paying member of NCDD to participate in our FREE Tech Tuesday learning events — though we greatly appreciate the support! You can join NCDD here or upgrade to a supporting membership here.


It’s a fascinating topic and Susan is a dynamo and a half, so this should be just about the most exciting webinar you’ve every encountered (I know, consider the competition…).  Like it says, you don’t have to be an NCDD member, but it’s cheap to join and they do good stuff.  Check them out at ncdd.org.

Hope you’ll join us!

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!


  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.


  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.


  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.


  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.


  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.


If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…



Make your Own Dance and Learn from The Rest of Us: Recommendations for the Congress for the New Urbanism members

“Planning was lost to design for so, so many years.  CNU exists because people who cared about design and loved design realized that they needed to take planning back from the non-designers.”

–Jeff Speck, opening comments at Congress for the New Urbanism annual awards presentation in Buffalo, New York, June 2014.


I’m disturbed.  I have been for months.


Ever since my first in-person exposure to the Congress for the New Urbanism a couple of months ago.  I heard a lot of things there that worried me.  And that’s very uncomfortable, because a lot of people I like and admire wholeheartedly endorse CNU.   And I’ve been reading CNU stuff for years.  And I agree with all the principles – restore existing urban centers, diverse neighborhoods, multi transit modes, universally accessible spaces, etc. etc.  Sold.  I am a planner and a historic preservation advocate, after all.

But I saw and heard (or didn’t see and hear) a good deal that worried me.  And I would say that this was perhaps none of my business – I’m not a member, after all – except for a few little facts:


  1. The important principles embedded in CNU can get lost in the backwash of these other issues,
  2. The ability to actually make the kind of impact everyone in CNU wants appears to be hamstrung by these kinds of issues, and
  3. There’s really good people doing good work who are drawing on CNU for ideas and energy, but in some cases these issues are creating damaging blind spots.


There’s been other things written about CNU in the wake of the June event a couple of months ago, and they’ve touched on some of my concerns.  But as we all gear back up for fall, and as organizations that I admire like Strong Towns start to think about how they can make a more meaningful impact, I think it’s time to share these concerns.  And I’ve already taken planners and economic developers to task more than once in my life, so I might as well be an equal opportunity pisser-offer, no?


Here’s what I heard (or didn’t hear) that worried me.  To try to capture more clearly how things struck me at the time, I’m going to somewhat randomly insert direct quotes from my own notes that I took during the Congress.  Those are in italics.


1. We can solve urban problems through design. 

Yes, I know CNU traces its roots to architects.  Yes, I know architects design stuff.  Yes, I know CNU isn’t the only place where you can find architects who think the answer to all social ills is to design stuff.  And yes, I know that the Charter part of CNU says “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems.”


But if you only allow yourself to use a couple of the tools in the Great Improving Places Toolbox, then every problem looks like the hammer and screwdriver that happen to be the ones you picked up.


Which is fine if your goal is to Make Really Cool Stuff With a Hammer and A Screwdriver.


But if you’re serious about trying to address the complex issues that urban places face, you have to learn to use more of the tool box.  You have to learn how to use the hammer in combination with the needle nose pliers and the tin snips.


From where I sit, this looks like a big part of why CNU supporters and other New Urbanists so often get accused of being elitists – As an example, obsessing over things like bike lanes and overlooking the real life barriers that make bike travel options an arguably minor issue for a large proportion of people who live in a community.


To grossly mix metaphors, it’s a tone deafness brought on by a certain tunnel vision.


To be fair, urban planners are certainly capable of this, too, and I’ve chewed out economic developers for taking a ridiculously simplistic view of how a local economy works before, as well.


Tweet from someone: “go to the best Main Streets. Measure them and feel them. They were built before the automobile.
#NextUrbanism #CNU22”


BUT… “The best Main Streets” often don’t look much at all like they did before the automobile.  They’ve all been changed. 


The world does not work the way it did when they were built.  There were problems with urban places. There was a reason our grandparents’ generation left when they had the chance.  Have we fully understood and addressed those?  “Bad highways” over simplifies it.


What does an architect’s education include?  I don’t think architects and landscape architects (and a lot of physical planners, for that matter) are taught social/cultural history.  Or cultural geography – how places came to be the way they are and how they reflect the history of the people who shaped them.  If you don’t have that kind of long term view, it’s easy to glom on to simplistic assumptions about what people want, mostly based on people who look and sound like you, and try to take that to the bank. 



2. Hero worship.


This is probably as much a factor of the history of the architecture profession as anything else.  There’s a whole different level of gooing and gawing over some Grand Wizard Founder dude (mostly dudes) in the CNU world than in any other professional group I’ve ever encountered.  Yes, I know, I didn’t go to architecture school.


Apparently at the time, the whole thing reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes fable:


The Emperors’ clothes are perhaps not missing, but much more tattered than they and acolytes want to admit.  I have known too many designers whose spent years fixing the Grand Designer’s oversights and errors.


I know that the Founders did good stuff.  Like I said, I buy the principles of the Charter.

But hero worship is at odds with critical thinking.  It’s works against any efforts to seriously explore new ideas, to address the question of how to make a meaningful impact on how people live, especially if (as the Charter says) Design is not the Only Answer.  And it creates hubris and blocks collaboration (more on that in a minute).


Hunter S. Thompson said one time that he thought America was raising a “generation of dancers” – meaning, a generation of people who couldn’t think for themselves and could only follow a pattern of steps that someone else had laid out for them.  Which is a good way to look graceful, but useless for trying to change anything.


There is a growing group of (mostly younger) folks within CNU who are trying to expand the model, address the broader range of issues that block community success more successfully, doing exciting things around building a better understanding of the impact of places on economies and people’s real lives.  But at this moment, it seems like they are barely sticking their toes out of the outlines of the footsteps of the dance. Making a truly meaningful impact on the issues that this contingent says that they want to address requires the willingness to improvise on the dance.  But if you’ve convinced yourself that the dance leader is Fred Astaire, you will have a hard time growing the bravery to do that.


Some huge egos floating around here… Lots of quoting each other in familiar tone



3. Hubris. 

Yes, this kind of goes with the hero worship.  Or maybe it’s an outgrowth of the belief that Design Will Solve All.  Or it’s an architect thing.  Don’t know.  What I do know is that there seems to be a lack of ability to admit that you might be wrong.  You might, possibly, be way wrong.  You never really know.


To my ears, CNU has a tendency to a disturbingly close variation on the blind devotion to the Big Plan that led to the damages and excesses of urban renewal.  If you’re a whole lot younger than me, you might have only read about that as a glancing reference in some glossed over college textbook.  If you’re older than me, you may have seen those destructive impacts first hand.


What we sometimes forget, and what the allure of the Big Plan cakes over, is that the people who proposed Urban Renewal used the same grand language, the same sweeping gestures, the same gross oversimplification of cause and effect in real human places that paints much of the rhetoric of the New Urbanism today.  In the 1950s, we probably didn’t know that communities were so complicated, so perhaps our predecessors can be forgiven.  But we don’t have that excuse today.



“The next #CharterAward is seriously long on guts. Notre Dame architecture’s new plan of Chicago

Dear God…Looks like that “plan” takes out half the buildings in the Loop!!!  F’ in shit…..


They aren’t giving an award for a regional plan this year.  They don’t think any of the proposals were grand or visionary enough.  Really?  Really?? Have you ever _tried_ to make a plan for a region? It’s a lot more complicated than drawing a nice picture….



4. Us versus Them


Maybe this is the biggest problem, or the root of the rest.  I know CNU grew out of a sense of being the outcasts from “conventional” planning, that these were the revolutionaries, the radicals, the New.  But we all know how relevant an aging revolutionary is after a few decades.


A lot of people are working on the question of how to make cities better.  They come to the question from all sorts of perspectives – social, economic, cultural, technology, you name it.  They’re working on improving employment opportunities, increasing people’s connection to their neighbors, gathering and making sense of data that might help us better understand how cities actually do work…all things that either find a comfortable home in the Charter or closely resonate to something in it.

Except that CNU doesn’t seem to be working with any of them.


At the organizational, thought leader level, does CNU ever ask other people, other perspectives, to join them in defining what these terms mean in _their_ context?  Do they ever try to build bridges between their interests and the other types of people and organizations working on these issues?  

Where is the interface with ICIC?  Brookings? Next City?  With organizations that are trying to address problems of urban disinvestment?


If you care so damn much about urban places, why aren’t you taking to them?


That us v. them mentality has the ancient benefit of building a “tribe” where believers can feel safe, but we all know that this means closing off outside ideas as well.


Why did I just apologize for being a mom and living in a suburb?  Am I implicitly supporting a groupthink?


“Surface parking lot villain??”



I have spent most of my career and most of my written words over the past few years arguing for fundamental changes in how we make decisions that affect the future of communities.  I fight regularly for better information and decision-making methods, more meaningful and broader engagement of the whole range of people who can help find solutions (including plain old residents), and ways to build the connections and resilience of a community by growing a robust and relevant local economy.  I find bits of all of these in the Charter, and in the good work of many people who proudly claim a CNU affiliation.

But there’s a whole lot of work to be done, and sometimes in life our own history and assumptions get in the way of what we deeply want to achieve.  So here’s my challenge to CNU members:

  • Create space for critical re-evaluation.  Improvise on the dance.  Decide for yourselves what’s important and what’s getting in the way.  Don’t accept something just because a Big Name told you so.  That’s how we got the last few sets of Big Mistakes.


  • Build relationships with others who are working to make communities better.  Not just design and design-near types. But people who can’t draw a stick figure and are focused on issues like finding jobs for people.  I don’t know what exactly will happen, but I’ll bet you it will make your work, and your community, better.


  • Admit what you don’t know.  Actively seek new ideas.  Bring the folks who are exploring small scale, experimental approaches, like Tactical Urbanism, out of the fringes.  Use those as not just Cool Things that We Can Actually Do On Budgets That Don’t Look Like They Did in 2006, but use them as ways to test and learn.  That will require admitting that sometimes an idea that looked great on paper didn’t quite work out in real life.  Because, you know, human communities are messy and we’re still trying to figure out how they work.


In a sense, what CNU is facing is all part of the big sea change that all of the community professions and interest groups are going through.  Economic developers are asking themselves why big business recruitment hasn’t worked, historic preservation people are trying to figure out where they fit in a world where hundreds of thousands of old buildings stand vacant, community development people are trying to find ways to help communities do something other than affordable housing, philanthropies are trying to figure out how to make a real difference on the very tough problems that simply giving money to haven’t solved.

We’re in a time of enormous change and upheaval, and upheavals don’t favor the insular, the self-important or the simplistic.

So come on along with the rest of us.  We promise we’ll find plenty of common ground.  The Charter shows us that.  We just all need to live up to it.

The Entrepreneurs and the Local Government People should be friends

I wrote the following recently as a result of an invitation to do a guest post for Krista Whitley’s blog, KeepinUpWithKrista.com.  Krista is the CMO of a firm called Negrico and one of the mavens of the Downtown Project community in Las Vegas, which I wrote about here and here (with more in the hopper).  Krista’s audience is mostly entrepreneurs and small business owners, and ironically, the day I planned to start writing something was the same day I was doing a webinar on how local governments can more effectively support small businesses.  So one thing led to another, and it was pretty interesting to try to turn the explanation of how local government and small business thinking differs inside out from what I was doing later that day.  A little finessing later and I think I have something that makes a reasonable amount of sense.
So I thought you might be interested in seeing how one might explain the framework that community professionals live in to small business people — and if the small business people you encounter seem kind of foreign to you, perhaps this will help you make sense of them to.  And if you think my advice to them should have been different, please let me know!
I don’t have a lot of entrepreneur peers in my everyday life.  Which is a little weird, because I’ve been either an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur for most of the last 20 years.

That’s also a little weird because I work with local governments and economic development people, and they all want entrepreneurs these days. Furiously.  I’m even teaching a class for local government people about how to better enable entrepreneurs and small businesses in their communities today, which is a topic no one was looking at five or seven years ago.  They’re finally starting to realize that the Magic Giant Employer with a Million Jobs is probably not going to land in their laps any time soon, and they are starting to come around to the idea that their best bets for a healthy local economy come down to you guys, the entrepreneurs and small business and startup types.

And that’s damn hard for a lot of them.  It’s not only a big shift in skill set, but frankly, y’all are… hard to deal with. Hard.To.Deal.With.
Here’s why:
Entrepreneurs and small businesses need a few key things to thrive (well, a ton of things, but here’s a few that are almost universal):
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Speed
  • Focus
  • Efficiency.
Sounds good.  But here’s the way I had to explain the world that you all live in to the local government people, who often wonder why their local small businesses are so hard to deal with:
  • Independence
  • Over Capacity
  • Impatience
  • Myopia
Before you get pissed at me, hear me out.  These are all the other side of the coin from the four items I listed before.
Independence/Self Sufficiency: We all know that an entrepreneur needs to be pretty tough to handle the rejections, the frustrations, the setbacks, etc.  But sometimes we over-estimate our self-sufficiency.  Don’t tell me what to do, I shouldn’t have to live by your rules.  We think we’re cowboys, masters of all we survey, rugged individualists who don’t need nothin’ from no one.  Until, at some point, we do.
Over Capacity:  Entrepreneurs almost always bite off more than they can chew.  Sometimes by choice, sometimes because they’re just like that.  Add things like families or day jobs or houses to maintain or other responsibilities, and you’re dealing with people whose time is massively overloaded.  And that means that we’re not often real patient with “unnecessary” things that get in our way.
Impatience:  What’s our mantra, at least our internal mantra?  Usually, NOWNOWNOWNOW.  Nuff said.
Myopia:  I’m not sure if that’s a normal word for most people.  It is for me because I’ve always been one, not just metaphorically, but in reality.  I’m badly nearsighted (as in don’t look through my glasses, you’ll get a headache type of nearsighted).  But I’m also nearsighted when it comes to my business.  You know where you’re focus has to be if you’re going to make this business thing work.  Things that aren’t impacting my core business…they’re distractions.  They get in the way.  They frustrate me.
All of that is well and good as long as all I have to deal with is myself.  But every once in a while you have to deal with your local permit-giving people, or you want the city to change one of their regulations, or you get contacted by the economic development people who want to help you, but you have a nagging feeling that they have no idea how to actually help you.  What gives?
When you hit that, it might help to take a look through their glasses for a minute.  What does their world look like?  Here’s how I described it to them. And they pretty much agreed.
Responsibility: They have a lot of people to report to.  A lot. Not only bosses and department heads, but city managers, council members, board members, mayors, etc.  Political types.  And in a lot of communities, many of the “bosses” that have the most say over their futures may not have much understanding of the world in which they have to try to get things done.  We have this bad habit in the US of not always electing the most knowledgeable types.  And even when our local government friends do get to work in an environment of well-informed leadership, they also have a deep and serious responsibility to the Public.  Most local government people I know take that responsibility very seriously.  And it’s like having a few thousand kids or pets that you need to look out for.  I have trouble remembering whether I fed my dog sometimes.  Being responsible for the well being of a whole city… yow.
Protecting: A lot of the justification for many of the things local government people do, like zoning and permits, comes legally out of something called “police powers.”  Police powers are given when there’s a need to protect people from the bad choices of other people (like robbery, or attacks, or buildings that are built crappy and fall down on people.) Those local government people are given the responsibility for protecting everyone in town. You may not feel like you need protecting (and you might be right, or you might be myopic, it depends), but it’s still part of their job description, to protect.
Scrutiny: Want to feel like you like under a microscope?  Go to work for a city.  Between your dozens or hundreds of bosses, the conventional media and the fact that everyone they meet is a potential amateur investigative reporter, you’d be looking over your shoulder, too.
Caution: One common theme of all of the above traits is that they all push hard against the idea of taking risks, experimenting, little bets, fail forward… all that stuff that entrepreneurs swim in every day.  When you ask them to give you a waiver, to bend a rule for your really cool project, to support a new program that you heard worked really well three states over, what you’re really asking them to do is take a big risk in about the most risk-adverse environment you can imagine.  They might even know they need to change something, and the person or department you’re talking to might even be more willing to take risks because they know that the old way isn’t working.  But they have to do that within a world that hates risk with a fury.
None of that is to say that you can’t get that variance or build support for that change in the law. None of that is to say that they are stuck in the 1930s, that they’re just a brick wall, that they can’t change.  But it is to say that if you want to get it done, you have to understand how to work with what they have and where they are.
You study a prospective market’s needs and issues before you start trying to sell to them, and you tell them about your product in a way that makes the most sense to the people you’re trying to sell it to.  It’s the same thing here.  To get what you want/need, it makes sense to understand where they are coming from and help them use what you have to offer to change their system.
  • Try to be patient.  They have a specific process that they have to go through, and chances are they don’t have a whole lot of control over that approval process.  And the people that they need to get that approval from (planning commissions, city councils, boards of directors) are usually volunteers who do this in addition to their usual jobs and lives.  Depending on what you need and who volunteered for those boards or commissions or councils, they may be flying by the seat of their pants, too.  Whatever touches them isn’t going to happen instantaneously.  Plus, some of that delay (maybe not all, but at least some) is actually baked into the structure of the process.  There’s limits as to how often they’re allowed to meet and how many weeks of public notice about a meeting have to happen before the even so that it’s legal.  That’s so that the Protecting and Scrutiny and Caution needs can be addressed.   When you have to make a big decision, you might say that you’re going to sleep on it.  Whatever you’re asking is going to make a change that could impact a lot of people, either directly or by changing the rules that future people have to live by.  If you had that Responsibility, and the purpose of your job was to Protect the community from things that could have a negative impact down the road, you’d want to think it over, too.


  • Be a partner.  Their rules may prevent them from being overly buddy-buddy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a professional partnership.  It’s in both of your best interests to succeed, although (like any good partnership), your exact needs may not be in total lockstep.  Make clear that you understand and honor their obligations and that you want to seek mutual benefit.  We sometimes treat government as a service provider, like a gas station or a Wal Mart, but that’s not what a partner does.


  • Give them facts.  It’s a lot more effective for a local government person to push their internal system to do something out of the ordinary if they have concrete data to back it up. Give them more data than the zoning process or petition or whatever asks for.  Don’t kill them with an inpenetrable file of factoids — put some of the thought into it that you use in communicating with your customers.  Make the information that they/you need as accessible and digestible as possible.


  • Listen.  You listen to customers, and you know that they don’t always immediately tell you their deepest concerns.  Put a couple of layers of responsibility and scrutiny on top of that, and you get the professional but inflexible stance that often makes entrepreneurs complain about “bureaucrats.”  So give your customer development skills a workout.  Listen, really listen — to the facts and the minutiae, and to the underlying issues and priorities to.  Try to understand what drives your local government person — the rules, yes, but also the organization priorities.  The strategic plan. The political realities.  If you can tie your project into their program’s goals, you’ve got a much better chance of getting some flexibility in the process details.
None of that is to say that local governments and economic development agencies and the like do everything right, or that they don’t need to change, and often change massively.  The strange thing about writing this post is that I’m usually the one telling those guys that they need to get it in gear, that they need to learn how to adapt and change more quickly and deal better with fast-moving issues like those that often face small businesses.  I don’t always make friends when I do that.
But like every relationship that matters, it’s a two-way street.  As our businesses get smaller and more flexible, and as our cities get more complex and more intertwined, we all have to realize sooner or later that we’re not cowboys — and that neither our cities nor our businesses can operate as islands.  Like it or not, we depend on each other.
I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know a lot of the folks involved in the Downtown Project in Las Vegas over the past few months (including Kristi!).  And one of the things that has fascinated me about the Downtown Project has been the Container Park.  When I’ve talked to both city staff and Downtown Project staff about that project, I’ve heard the joke that they used to call it “Variance Village.”  In the zoning and building code world, a variance is when the city waives or relaxes a regulatory requirement as a sort of special exception — usually because it would be impossible to meet that standard in this situation (lot’s too narrow, existing buildings etc.) and because it wouldn’t put anyone or anything at risk of getting hurt if they waived that rule in this case.
It took several months longer than someone had planned to get all the approvals in place so that they could start building the Container Park.   I’ve heard a few Downtown Vegas business people (not the people who were directly involved with the project, but sort of the regular residents of the area) attribute that to the stupidity or sluggishness of “government bureaucracy”
The Container Park is built of shipping containers.  The big metal boxes that roll around on the back of trucks and train cars.
Do you know how to build a three-story building out of shipping containers?  I sure don’t.  And given that no one else in the US has done this yet, I would bet there’s not a lot of folks out there who do.
Like pretty much any city in the country, Las Vegas had no experience with building out of shipping containers.  And the rules that had been set us to protect people from having a building collapse on their heads, or getting food poisoning from a restaurant, or any of the other things that we take for granted that other people won’t be able to do to us…. those rules were written for a completely different kind of place.
So what do you do if you want a good thing to happen, but your rules don’t fit and its your job to make sure that the public is Protected?  You work it out.  You figure it out.  Which is what the Downtown Project and the City did.  But of course, that takes time.
Like it or not, we’re depending on each other.  You’re a huge piece of the economic and the general future of your community.  But you need them and they need you.
And if they give you a hard time, let me know.  I can make some hair curl if I have to.


Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement: Annotated slides

I went looking for this presentation to share with a colleague today and was a little surprised to see that I had never posted it here before.  So we shall correct that, and hopefully you’ll find it useful.

Public partic 20 APA rev n annotated

I’ve done this talk about using online public participation tools at least three or four times.  The goal here is to help people understand why our usual public participation methods don’t work — and how online tools can help bridge those gaps.  Since my slide decks usually consist of a large (often goofy) image and minimal text, I find that I need to do sort of a version with notes in order for them to make sense to someone reading it after the fact.

Especially with the launch of the Online Public Engagement Emporium last week, and plans in the works to enhance EngagingCities, I think finding this  document probably reflects where my brain has been.  And, although some of the images are probably a little out of date, and there’s a lot more examples I could use if I remade it today, I think the guidance in this is definitely worth sharing.  If you want to learn more about the (relatively) latest and greatest in online public engagement tools, check out OnlinePublicEngagementEmporium.wordpress.com

So, here ya go.  Enjoy!


The Online Public Engagement Emporium launches

Yes, I know I needed something else to do. As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a longtime interest in online technologies and tools designed to help communities do better, broader and more meaningful public engagement.  That interest has led me all sorts of interesting places — including a bunch of speaking gigs, friendships with a lot of very cool tech people that I would never get to hang out with otherwise, and my current gig as editor of EngagingCities. And I think I can safely say that much of that grew out of a white paper on online public engagement tools that I wrote initially to just keep my own head straight.

But I’ve learned that using the white paper format on a fast-moving, constantly-changing field is kind of like trying to ride a bicycle in a Formula One race… you can try your best, but it just ain’t gonna work.

As a result, I just moved all of the last white paper’s content over to a new web site:

http://onlinepublicengagement emporium.wordpress.com

In my mind, I’d like to have kind of a circus theme on this thing to go with the “Emporium” language — big top, lions jumping through rings, elephants, etc. (No clowns – they’re creepy…).  But since I don’t know if thing can pay for itself yet, it will have to wait for the dressing-up.

On this site, you’ll find a summary of several online public engagement platforms, some definitions of terms, and a few options if you decide you’d like some help with selecting the platform that will best fit your needs.  I believe that each tool has unique advantages and limitations, and my intent when I am advising is to find the best match between client and platform.  So I worked out a pretty simple (and cheap) way to help you get that advice. One of the things that I’ve learned from my tech friends is that you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going with something before you throw it out into the internet universe.  Sometimes you’re just throwing spaghetti.  So

I don’t know exactly what this site is going to turn into.  We may add content to help readers better understand the different options, but none of that is worked out at the moment.

In the meantime, if you have an online public participation start up that fits the Emporium’s criteria, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.  If you represent one of the sites that’s already on here and something’s out of date or just plain wrong (Really?  That could happen? Damn right it could), please send me a note as well.  We’re not going to list every tiny widget and setting here, but I want to make sure this thing gives people the right place to start.

And if you have invented cloning lately, I definitely want to hear from you.

Deals Deals Deals: 20% off on Wise Fool Books

I love my e-reader, but sometimes you just want a regular paper book – especially if you’re hanging by the pool or the beach.  And if you really want to look like one of the smart kids, you’ll want to get caught on the beach reading The Local Economy Revolution  or Why This Work Matters, right?  fat penguin flying majestically over Toledo

Of course you do.  Of course.

From now ’til June 30, Lulu.com (the producer of the print local economy revolution coverversion of Wise Fool Press books) is offering a sweet 20% discount on all print copies.  All you have to do is put in the coupon code JFS20 at checkout.  That’s a pretty sweet deal!

You can go to either book’s web site above and click the print version link on the “Get the Book Page,” or you can go to Lulu directly — either way, same difference.

Enjoy and happy reading!

Why this work matters cover


Missives from the Front Lines of Community Revitalization: the Las Vegas Downtown Project, Part 1

A few months ago I tried to quietly post some field notes from some time I had spent studying one of the most interesting new models of downtown and community revitalization that I’d encountered anywhere. I figured no one other than a few diehards would see them.

I was wrong about that – but the feedback I received from people in the Downtown Las Vegas community and elsewhere indicated to me that I had at least mostly gotten it right. Which was a relief, because it’s a much more complex, and much more relevant, story than much of the coverage that has run in main stream press has indicated.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project’s story, as it has been told by a small assortment of journalists to date, has been a pretty standard blend of the Rich Guy Throws A Lot Of Money At It story, with a bit of a techno-whiz kid, Next Silicon Something spin on it. You know, to keep it interesting. And of course you also get the classic newcomers-oldtimers squabbles, hipster kids mocked for drinking PBR, etc. etc.

Whoopie.  Unless you want to spend your time on another version of this old chestnut, nothing useful for people who are trying to revitalize their communities.
Of course, I’m not a journalist, despite my impressive cred of having been a stringer for the Bedford Times Register back in the day. Most of my life revolves around trying to figure out how people can help make their communities work better in a changing economy and changing technologies. I write about these issues from that background, because I don’t want to just tell a story, I want to help people find new solutions for their most wicked community problems.
I first started hearing about the Downtown Project probably two years ago. My knowledge of it started as a couple of interesting Twitter feeds and slowly turned into a minor obsession – to the extent that I was probably the only tourist in May 2013 taking photos of the dusty lot surrounded by chain link fence that was slated to become the Container Park. It’s on my Instagram feed, if you don’t believe me.
What I learned, through Twitter and e-newsletters, and later through phone calls and a visit tacked on to a delayed anniversary trip, was that the ground-breaking, transformative and potentially disruptive elements of what the Downtown Project was doing stemmed from something much deeper than a construction project or a pile of money.

In ways that I probably still don’t fully understand, the Downtown Project has been applying the lessons of the new technology-based economy to the social and physical work of revitalizing a community. In a certain sense, it’s the Hacker Ethic making an early foray into the world of special improvement districts and downtown festivals. And into figuring out how to find new economic opportunities for old business districts.

Thus begins an occasional series that represents me trying to make sense of what I have seen and heard in Downtown Las Vegas within the context of the other communities that I have worked with nationwide. Despite the national media’s focus on money and tech wizards, I think there is much here that we can take home to our communities.   And way more useful than those oversized cups on Fremont Street.

Part 1: The Holacracy Hive Hybridization

One of the first things you notice when you start paying close attention to the Downtown Project is that the centralized authority story that the big investments would seem to imply…break down pretty quickly in real life. While there are some centralized functions that are clearly run by a central organization, much of what happens on the ground is simply people doing the things that they think the community as a whole needs.  And doing so with a level of “go get ’em” from the organization’s leadership that implies an unusually high level of trust in relatively random volunteers.

Let me explain through a story that was told to me.

A few months ago, someone had the idea of establishing a dog park on the edge of the area of downtown that’s been experiencing some reinvestment. There’s a lot of vacant lots in this area – Vegas is an auto-era town, and the combination of vacant lots and demolished buildings means that open space, in general, unaesthetically-desirable terms, isn’t lacking.
In most towns, when someone thinks there should be a dog park, they start pushing their local government or downtown organization or some other Institution to do it. They agitate, they cajole, they might persuade.

After much debate, the Institution decides whether or this initiative has Merit, and if the Institution concludes that it does, the Institution puts the Park Projet on its Work Plan or its Capital Improvement Plan. Then Plans are Drawn, Designs are Vetted and Approved, Funds are Formally Allocated and, eventually, the Park gets Built.

Except, of course, when it gets stalled out or delayed or tangled up in complications over the course of all the time it takes to get through all those steps.

Perhaps more uncomfortably, the person who had the idea in the first place has to give up control of their vision, or even the ability to have any direct influence over it, in order to get it done.  Oh, they might get some credit at the ribbon cutting, or they might get invited to sit on the Institution’s board. But chances are, they become a footnote. But they have no real control over how it turns out, or whether it actually addresses the need that they perceived as a result of their life in the community.  They have to hand over complete responsibility for the park to the Institution, and… hope for the best. In most cases, for most people with good ideas and without deep pockets, that’s the only option.

What happened with the Downtown Project Dog Park put a very different twist on the model. From what I understand, the person who first came up with that idea had the responsibility within the local culture to run with the Dog Park concept as far as she could go on her own. She presented her idea to the Downtown Project leadership, but instead of saying,
“Thank you for your input. We will take your idea under consideration and decide what to do with it.”

they said,

“If you think the community needs this, great, go for it. Get as far with it as you can. If you reach a point where you need our help, just let us know.”

Do you see the difference there?

The Institution, in this case, was doing something that some of the more cynical among us might interpret from a distance as a subtle type of brush off. But that’s not it. The reason why the Downtown Project said
great idea, go do it, let us know if we can help,  wasn’t because it was a way to get out of responsibility for dog parks, or because they didn’t have the stomach to say no to her face.

There’s something very different going on here.

The Institution, in this case, assumed that the individual represented not just a squeaky wheel, but a member of the community who had insights into community needs and challenges and friction points that other members of the community, including the leadership, might not be in a position to see. The organization regarded the individual proposing the idea as a sensor, an indicator, a data portal indicating a need for the community that she was, for whatever reason, in a unique place to be able to sense and articulate.

Of course, we all know that individuals can sense wrong. So the response both gave her the power to move her perception of what the community needed forward, and it gave her and the organization the opportunity to further test whether her sensing was correct.  By pursuing her idea, perhaps raising some seed funds, finding a lot, seeing if a property owner would sell or lease for a dog park, identifying what furniture and features this dog park should have, both she and, by extension, the Downtown Project had an opportunity to test out whether this proposal actually did meet an achievable need before getting deeply embedded in designs, real estate negotiations, permits.

And because she knew that her ability to win the support she might ultimately need for the dog park depended on being able to show that the community needed and wanted it, she had an inbuilt motivation to reach out and include the community, After all, it was her own personal reputation, not only with the organization itself, but with the broader community surrounding it, that was in play. The power of reputation within a community – we’ll come back to that again in the future.

Eventually, the person who had sensed the need for the dog park reached a point where she needed funding and organizational support to get the project done. When she went back to the Downtown Project, she did so with the ability to demonstrate community support and with a plan of action.

Note: up until that point, all the organization “gave” her was, essentially, a little reinforcement.  A charge to go and do what she felt was right for the community.  A reassurance that if her idea did turn out to have the support of the community, that the community would support her in making it happen.

Not costly, difficult or dangerous stuff.

Zappos, which is the company where Tony Hseih made the millions that are helping to fund the Downtown Project, got a lot of ink in the national business and technology press a few months ago when they announced that Zappos would move to a holacracy model of management. As might be expected, reporters latched on to the obvious and foreign-sounding parts of the announcement – “No Titles!” “No Job Descriptions!”

Which of course then led to “They’re nuts!” And as usual, that missed the most important parts of the story.

I’m no holacracy expert myself, but when I was trying to understand the seemingly thousands of moving parts and these hive-like relationships associated with the Downtown Project, people I was talking to kept pointing me back to the principles of holocracy. We’re not actually doing a holacracy within Downtown Vegas, they told me. But it will help you understand.

So I read, and even sat through a webinar put on by the consulting firm that sort of formalized the holacracy idea into an actionable process. And while I can’t say that I’m ready to go consult on it myself, I think I get the principle:

In a holacracy, everyone has a role to play in terms of advancing the mission of the organization. You know specifically what your role includes, and what your role does not. Within your area of responsibilities, you are entrusted with the power to go and do what you understand to be needed for the success of the mission, without having to ask permission or play politics or jockey for resources, because you are trusted to be a sensor of where friction or pain points are arising that are impeding the organization’s ability to meet its objectives.  When addressing the issue that you have sensed extends beyond your area of responsibility, you are charged to reach out and engage those of your colleagues who have the other responsibilities that need to be brought to bear to address the issues that were sensed.  You do all of that because you know exactly what your responsibilities to the larger organization include, and your ability to build the collaborations that you need in the future depend on the degree to which you have demonstrated that others can trust you to fulfill your role with integrity.

That’s necessarily oversimplified – the holacracy system itself includes a whole elaborate trusswork of rules and spelled-out procedures and specific processes for resolving conflicts, and people who are embedded in holacracies apparently spend a great deal of time refining the rules of the process.

But the result, at least ideally, is an elimination of many of the reasons why we end up having to defer to authorities and organizations to get things done: lack of trust, uncertainty about responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly, lack of a clear and relatively frictionless way to engage the resources that we need beyond those that we directly control in order to meet the larger mission.

There’s a significant challenge in applying a system based on clear roles and clear missions to a community-driven organization, where even the best-crafted missions probably mean something a little different to everyone (just try getting everyone to exactly agree on what “community” means.  Be my guest.)   Not to mention the fact that we all know that community volunteers don’t always want to play exactly by the established rules.

But I learned about dozens of initiatives similar to the dog park story – situations where regular members of the community sensed a need and felt empowered to go pursue it as far as they could, knowing that if they could get some community traction, the Institution would help them carry it to completion. It’s a partnership, a surprisingly respectful and trusting partnership.


In a sense, this essay is attempting to understand the Downtown Project by looking at just one slice of it, which means it’s almost guaranteed to be inaccuate, since there are so many elements that seem to play into its unique perspective and its success to date. So do realize that this is an incomplete picture. I’ll try to unpack additional elements in coming posts.

But I’d be interested to see whether this makes sense to you – and how (or if) you think this model might work in your community.




Special offer: Webinar on Local Governments and Small Business

I have the great priviledge of teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services next month on one of my favorite topics. It’s titled,

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses

I’ll be teaching this live webinar on July 23, 1:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time. And the good folks at Lorman are offering it to you friends of the Wise Economy Workshop at a special (ridiculous, even) 50% discount. So you don’t wanna miss this.

You can read the description and register with that massive discount at


And here’s the description:

Government officials and elected leaders are facing intense pressure to demonstrate job growth, but conventional big business recruitment efforts involve large budget and staff time commitments – and seldom pay off. Governments are increasingly seeing a need to focus economic development efforts on small business growth, but they soon discover that the same methods cannot be applied – that small businesses have very different needs and expectations. This live webinar will help you get inside the mind of a small business owner and understand their assumptions and challenges. We will then examine methods being used by large and small communities across the country to help support small business growth by providing relatively low-cost types of assistance. These “feeder” types of assistance focus on cultivating a robust, highly interconnected small business environment that can catalyze growth faster than conventional methods. We will also examine effective roles that governments can play in actively changing a community’s small business environment through targeted efforts that make the best use of governments’ strengths and capacities.

Learning Objectives

– You will be able to identify the different worlds of small businesses and governments.

– You will be able to explain care and feeding of small business growth.

– You will be able to discuss communicating and streamlining.

– You will be able to explain using small business incentives wisely.


Feel free to share this to your friends, colleagues, random strangers, whoever. Helping local government people work successfully with their community’s small business gets more important – and more difficult – all the time, and I think this webinar will help them make a bigger and more powerful impact on their communities.


CNU22 and IEDC: A Tale of Two Conferences

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I spent last week at two conferences – the International Economic Developers Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism – where I figured I was the only soul who would schlep from one to the other.  They’re not exactly sides of the aisle that are known for being all buddy – buddy with each other. While I’m a regular at IEDC stuff, this was my first CNU – as I explained yesterday, I was there because a consulting team on which I had served was slated to receive an award.  Good reason to drag yourself from Minneapolis to Buffalo, I figured.  I was wrong about being the only one doing that, though.

Emily J. Brown is a planner and writer who plays a big role in IEDC’s research arm.  She’s also a CNU chapter board member.  So I thought that was she wrote after the two conferences was particularly illuminating — and important for a wider range of people to read.  Even though there’s a big silo in this photograph, I think it’s clear that we all have to get past our silos and start engaging in a meaningful fashion across community disciplines.  If we ever had problems that could be solved by just one of our types working along, we don’t anymore.

The interesting question to me is that I think I am starting to see a few small-scale cross-pollinations between community professions, but mostly we still say “yeah, we need to be working together” while housed safely within out organizations.  If we mean it, how do we start connecting across the disciplines?  Is that something that professional organizations can lead, or does that have to come from somewhere else?  What do you think?

Emily’s post was brief, so I’ll paste it in below.  I’d recommend you follow her at http://www.emilybrowndowntown.com/ or on Twitter at @ebrowndowntown.

Here’s Emily:

In the past week, I have been lucky enough to attend conferences of two of the most influential groups in the planning realm—the International Economic Development Council’s Spring Conference in Minneapolis, MN and the 22nd Congress for New Urbanism in Buffalo, NY. Though two conferences in one week can take a toll, I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to cutting edge thinking on building high-functioning communities from two very different angles.

In planning, there’s always been some tension between the policy folks and the design crowd. Those on the policy side pooh-pooh design, while advocating “real solutions.” In the economic development side these

Presentation at CNU
From Emily Brown

solutions ideally lead to jobs. Designers answer that the policy folks are not thinking holistically and advocate for elegantly framed places that organically attract people, investment, and yes, eventually, more jobs.

As a board member of my local CNU chapter and an employee of IEDC, I’ve got one foot in both worlds, and from where I stand, I see them growing closer together. In Minneapolis, economic developers were talking about the importance of new transit options in attracting and retaining a quality workforce, while in Buffalo, there were multiple sessions discussing the financial aspects of denser development. Often, I feel like the two groups discuss the same problems with different language. Such as when economic developers talk about fostering an “entrepreneurial culture” and new urbanists expound on the virtues of “lean urbanism.”

The last week has proved to me that the overlap in the Venn diagram between new urbanists and the economic developers is large and growing. Of course there are areas that don’t fit in—new urbanists don’t really have much to add to the conversation on engagement with Workforce Investment Boards, for example, and economic developers could care less about articulated windows, but the two groups could benefit from more interaction and conversation as both work towards finding solutions in a new economy.


For interesting discussion on financially-solvent economies, economic developers should check out Chuck Marohn’s blog, Strong Towns. They presented at Spring Conference, too!

Also don’t miss Joe Minicozzi’s work on the financial case for mixed-use development: here http://vimeo.com/93081281 and here http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/tag/joe-minicozzi/

Urbanists should check out the work of economic development consultant Della Rucker, who was part of the team working on the Charter Award winning form-based code for Cincinnati:http://wiseeconomy.com/

Also consider following @iedctweets for information on our webinars, blog posts, and newly released papers.



I learned something: Cincinnati Form-based code team wins CNU Grand Prize

Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the people who got to represent the Cincinnati Form-Based Code consulting team at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual meeting in Buffalo. I had the pleasure of leading a team on that project that managed public engagement and public relations — that included Tammy Monroe, Northlich LLC, Sam McKinley’s Sustainable Places Studio and Patrick Whalen.

While I have some ongoing ambivalence toward the New Urbanism movement -(Ok, more with some of the tone and tenor, which I am planning to explore in an upcoming post) getting back together with the team gave me a chance to think through again what I learned out of that process, which finished more than a year ago.  And since the next Wise Fool book will be on public engagement, the timing is pretty good.

So here’s a few of the things I am remembering:

  • People need graphics to build understanding of their physical environment.  I kind of knew that, but I am such a verbal person by my wiring that I tend to forget that.  The power of being able to show people graphics – and revise them on the fly – I think does get through a lot of the mental barriers that people encounter when they try to think about what a different future would look like for their community. Most of us only have whatever stock of mental images we have in our heads, and that sense of unknown is probably a big part of what we often tag as recalcitrant NIMBY-ism.  Perhaps it’s not NIMBY, it’s frustration at lack of vocabulary.


  • BUT, showing people pictures isn’t enough.  The planner/designer has to be like a good teacher — part guide, part leader, part collaborator.  The team that worked the charrette process in Cincinnati (largely consisting of Opticos and Urban Design Associates staff) seemed to me to honor and value the eye-to-eye feedback they got from the community members.  That’s also a humongous part of the reason why a citywide form-based code passed in what’s historically a pretty cautious community. The people of the communities understood what the code was doing – it wasn’t done to them, it was done with them.  Based on about a million other proposals that I have seen choke and die once they get out of the designer’s hands, both in Cincinnati and elsewhere, that real collaboration is probably the single most important reason why this project actually came to life and is being used.   We the professionals (of whatever stripe) forget that way too easily, and get caught up in the castles we built in the air.  If the people who have to live in those castles don’t come to own the castle themselves, you have wasted your time.  And they will not buy it based on your illustrious resume or your assertions that it will all be lovely.  That might have worked 40 years ago, when both professionals and communities were more naive, but not you’re dealing with people and places who have probably been burned more than once.  And as every person becomes their own potential publishing platform, your ability to snow them withers fast. That didn’t happen in Cincinnati on this project, because people didn’t feel like they were being snowed, but the speed and vehemence with which people can push back if they feel they’re being talked down to — and the number of people they can reach overnight –continues to amaze me.  I’ve seen that kind of backlash across different geographies, demographics and education/income levels, and it seems like it gets more intense every time.  So there’s really no rational reason to think you can get away with pushing your project over on them.  If that had happened in Cincinnati on the form-based code, I assure you that you would have never heard about it again.


  • Gaining the trust and collaboration of the community is more about soft skills than hard skills.  The guys who could draw the best technically weren’t necessarily the best charrette managers.  The design professionals who empathized with the residents, probed honestly, explored transparently, and explained patiently…those were the ones where you could see the energy flowing through the whole group working together.  And those were the groups whose communities are moving forward today.


  • People get economics.  And economics matter a hell of a lot to their willingness to take risks with their community.  One of the things that surprised me when my team first came on the form based code part of the job was that the lead firm had already lined up two economic development specialists.  I will admit now that my nose got just a skotch out of joint — like a kid saying “Hey! I can play in that sandbox too!!!”  But being in the public engagement/ PR role gave me a chance to watch the interactions in a way that I probably couldn’t if I were doing that part.  And what I saw was that Ed Starkie of Urban Advisors and Kathleen Norris of Urban Fast Forward were able to connect with the residents, through logic and data and through stories, and help them understand and articulate the latent potential of the places.  They were able to give these folks a very practicable, take-to-the-bank counter to the negative press, the narrative of disinvestment that had come to tag their communities.  And even though many of them sensed, sort of knew intuitively that the bleak picture wasn’t accurate, they didn’t have the tools, the rational foundation, to give them a basis for pushing ahead, and pushing back on the doubters.  That’s a crucial element — and I came to the conclusion that giving people this sort of mental re-framing turned out to be every bit as important as deciding how tall buildings should be and what kinds of porches fit the environment.  Designers, understandably, don’t always get the importance of community economics.  But in this case, paying close attention to how the designs might interplay with the community’s economies gave residents and political representatives the intellectual foundation to be able to support potentially risky proposals.  And again, if that happened, you would be reading something else now.

So my deep thanks again to the City of Cincinnati and to my friends and partners on the consulting team for this great experience.  And thanks to the more than 700 people who turned out to get their hands into this process.  Y’all did good.

The slide. We knew the project was getting an award, but we didn’t know it was getting one of the big kahunas.


You Should Read This: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

My friend Jason Segedy posted something last week that I think should be required reading for every urban planner, every zoner, every economic developer and every other local government administrator.


If you teach college courses, you should be making your students read this.  If you manage a department, you should make your staff read this.  If you write a blog, you should reblog it.  Period.

It’s complicated stuff, and I know it will take you a couple of minutes.  And that you have other stuff to do.  And if you’re honest, this will make you squirm.

Read it anyways.


We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972


Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) – A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.


We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.


Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?


It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse.

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth – to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…


It’s about people.

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

Am I full of it? Explaining a new (old) consulting service

I had to write some new text today explaining how I do public engagement — in the consulting world, we call this “boilerplate” because they’re the pieces of general information that you can drop in when you need to and supplement with more specific details.  As I was going through this, I ended up inventing a sort of brand name or catchphrase for how I do this, since “get people-together-and-help-them-make-the-decisions-directly” got pretty tiring to type over and over again.

So I’m not wedded to StratSet (and it may indicate that I’ve been hanging out with the tech guys too much), but I think the description is on task.  At least, if it says to the rest of the world what it says inside my own head, then I think it describes how I do strategic planning and public engagement pretty accurately.  Problem is, though, I’m kinda stuck inside this thing…

Would you be willing to take a read through this and tell me what you think?  Does it make sense?  Does it sound like something that might be beneficial?  And while I don’t want you to obsess over it, does the StratSet name work?

I’ll be watching the comment box below eagerly… and hopefully.  Thanks.

Decisions that Matter, Decisions that Hold: the Wise Economy Workshop StratSet  Method

Governments and nonprofits need to make good plans, but they also need to do something much harder: they need to set strategies that can survive.  With crunched budgets, stretched staff, competing demands and more and more voices in the discussion, a plan’s decisions have to not only make sense, they have to earn the ownership of more people and more partners than ever before.

But conventional methods of plan development and public engagement around plans doesn’t do this well.  Here’s the first issue: we limit the real decision-making to just a handful of insiders, and we gingerly reach out to anyone else, asking for their “feedback” or their “ideas” or their support.”  By doing that, we have cut our planning efforts off at the knees.  Lots of people care about our community, and they want to do more.  And many of them have the power, the resources, or the connections to help the plan’s recommendations happen – or prevent them.  But they know when they’re not being offered a seat at the table, and if you exclude them, they’re naturally not going to participate.  When you need it, they’re not going to help you.  And they may fight you instead.

Similarly, the way we conventionally make plan decisions with our insiders doesn’t do much to build a personal or professional stake in the outcomes – the kind of ownership needed if people are going to stand up for the plan during a debate over the funding it needs, or advocate for your Big Ideas to the rest of the community.  We make it far too easy for even our insiders to play nice, to let us interpret their silence as support.  No wonder we are so often surprised when those insiders who served on the steering committee, who supposedly “supported” the plan, are nowhere in sight when we need them.

The Wise Economy Workshop StratSet method pulls from the best teaching and team-leading tactics to turn plan-making into a powerful launchpad into the community’s future.  StratSet methods create a clear set of shared, prioritized actions that come from the collective work of everyone we can bring to the table.  But that doesn’t means it’s a free-for-all or a parade of impossible ideas.  Instead, the StratSet method uses carefully-designed activities and shared group objectives to channel the participants.  The StratSet method enables them to understand real constraints, develop real-world solutions, and create them in collaboration with people they have never met.

No more showboating, no more grandstanding in public meetings.  No more “public feedback” that has nothing to do with reality.  No more plans that become unusable because no one truly supported the recommendations enough to take a stand.  No more claims of “that was their idea,” “they didn’t really listen to us,”  “The whole thing was a waste of time.”  Instead, StratSet builds a prioritized plan of action that everyone owns.  Your community and political leaders can trace how it was developed, understand the choices and their reasons, and see the range of support behind the recommendations.  And the people who worked on it will be more likely to support the hard decisions that a meaningful plan will create.

We can all do better, together.

How does the StratSet method work?

Economics matter.

People understand that economic issues are some of the biggest factors in the long-term viability of a community — and that even supposedly non-economic issues, like parks or internal operations, have big economic implications.   StratSet draws out the economic implications of the issues that are driving the plan through carefully-selected information sharing and group evaluation.  This gives participants a deep understanding of the importance of the issues that they will be working on, and gives them an immediate reason to stay at the table in the face of all the other demands on their time.

The Participants make (and own) the plan.

When professionals or a Star Chamber of insiders are allowed to make the plan decisions alone, the plan probably won’t do what it was intended to do – make the community better.  Plans need more than good ideas; they need support. Broad support, committed support.  The kind of support that you will only give when you have deep personal, intellectual and emotional ownership of the recommendation.  With so many competing demands and so few resources, only the recommendations that have these kinds of supporters are going to come to life.  Since Stratset participants grapple with the issues and evaluate the options themselves, they understand the potential of those recommendations better than you will ever convey in a written plan.  And that’s a powerful ownership that will make the difference in whether your recommendations get set in action or sit on a shelf.


Part of the reason why planners fear involving the public is because we’ve all been through too many useless free-for-alls or wild imagination sessions.  No one wants to be part of that kind of public engagement – not the planners, not the residents, not the elected officials.  In trying to give everyone a chance, we end up hearing from only a few, and no one gets anything beneficial out of it.

StratSet draws on a method that school teachers use to enable students to work together to build a rich understanding of complex issues.  Cooperative small group methods have been used for over 30 years in classrooms ranging from pre-K to graduate school, leveraging a mix of small working groups, group operating norms and structured sets of activities to guide participants through the process of working together, learning together, and developing well-informed, intelligent results together.  And after more than 10 years of using collaborative small group methods across the country, the difference in the quality and support that these plans generate is unmistakeable.  Just like water needs to run through a channel to power a turbine, channeling the hopes and ideas of people through a collaborative small group process gives us access to a powerful way to make smart and meaningful plan decisions.

Setting Priorities: Systematic, Transparent, Fair, Useful

Plans that don’t establish priorities don’t get anything useful done, but we often avoid setting priorities because we don’t want to offend someone.  But in an age where demands far exceed money and time, we don’t have that choice anymore.  StratSet methods make the process of setting priorities clear and transparent to everyone.  It does this by using participant-led systematic activities to guide people through the process of evaluating the choices and impacts, and by showing transparently how those priorities were made – not only for the participants, but for anyone else who wants to know in the future.  People might not personally agree with everything, but when you can see how the group made the decision, it’s hard to argue against it.






Audio: Open Data, Apps and Planning (APA 2014)

In my post of the videos from the Open Data, Apps and Planning session that I moderated at the American Planning Association national conference last week, I promised that I would post audio of the whole thing for those of you who are particularly gluttons.  You’ll find that audio at the end of this post.


But there’s an additional bennie: We had several excellent questions and answers in the second part of the session, and these are not captured in the videos. So if you haven’t watch the videos (or if my mad camera skills made you motion sick…), you might find it useful to listen to the whole thing. If you did, I’d recommend that you advance the audio to the 45:00 mark — you’ll hear some great insights that you won’t get from the videos. And no erratic zooming, either.

Here’s a few of the insights you’ll gain from the audio:

  • Planners tend to make a few basic mistakes in setting up public engagement.  One of them is that they forget that many people won’t read maps the way the planners intended.  Brad Barnett of PlaceMatters made a comment in his opening comments about the need to take a “layered” approach to helping people learn about the issues that planners want them to address played out in several people’s descriptions of using maps in public engagement: if you simply give people a big map and expect them to pull out big themes or trends, chances are many people won’t know how to do that — instead, they’ll go looking for their house.  That’s not where we wanted them to start, but that’s where they can find an anchor, a place to explore the map from.  No wonder they so often get obsessed over the parcel level – we didn’t help them start anywhere else.


  • Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans noted that planners have a “blind spot” when it comes to grasping the power and then game-changing potential of open data, since they already know how to find the information they want.  But that’s an over-simplified view of how communities work — and it overlooks what a powerful partner residents can be if they can get to the same information on their terms.


  • The tension between controlling participation and data and keeping it open seems to represent an ongoing issue.  Michelle Lee of Textizen noted that they think making data available to everyone is so important that they actually give a discount to communities that commit to keeping Textizen data open to everyone.  And Frank said that one of the first things they usually have to work through with planners is how open a process they should use.  Frank said that the planners usually want controlled access and sign-ins, Frank usually pushes back against that, and the planners and officials usually end up very happy with the amount and quality of feedback they get, even when they don’t exactly know where every comment came from. 


  • Sometimes people assume that there’s an either-or relationship between online and in-person engagement.  Once you’ve listened to these folks, you should realize that it’s not — online engagement is part of the continuum, just another set of tools for getting to the same big objectives.  Whether you buy a shirt in a store or on a web site, you still end up with a shirt, right? And even the most diehard techies still go to stores.  Similarly, online and in-person engagement are just different ways to enable people to participate.


  • Finally, Alicia Roualt of LocalData said that she thinks one of the biggest needs in this space right now is some guidance for people to help them identify which of the dozens of online tools best fits their community’s needs and their work’s objectives.  Having tried to get my head around the range and variety of platforms and apps through my white paper, I probably know as well as anyone how important, and how difficult, that is.  And I’m continuing to try to figure out how to do that.  If you have any bright ideas or want to be part of developing that solution, please let me know.

My deep thanks again to Alicia, Brad, Frank and Michelle for their great insights and willingness to schlep to Atlanta.  I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with these bright minds sometime soon.

The Near Future of Open Data, Apps and Planning

I had the great pleasure and fun of moderating a great session at the American Planning Conference in Atlanta earlier this week.  The session was called “Open Data, Apps and Planning, and it featured four of the brightest minds in the field.  So I could introduce them, sit back and shoot some video of their comments, which you’ll find below.

Here’s a few of the bright insights that came out of this session (in a very, very dark room…)

  • We’re starting to realize the critical importance of not just creating an online widget thing, but making sure that it’s designed and presented in a way that makes it usable and accessible to the general public.  That sounds self-evident, but there’s a lot of online tools out there that only make sense to you if you’re an insider (for example, the person who designed the thing).  The importance of what tech people call the User Experience (UX) came through in comments from Brad Barnett, Director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, who noted that we have to start designing for “layered learning” — the realization that people need to be able to start at an accessible place, such as a high-level overview or an issue that’s directly relevant to them, so that they can get a mental toehold, look around and understand their options for proceeding.  Think about how that differs from some of the things we often do, such as provide an online map with a lot of parcels and layers and other data.  No wonder people start looking immediately for their house — we haven’t given them a toehold or an orientation, so they go in search of one.


  • Just putting the thing out there is no where near enough, which is something we should have learned after decades of making jokes about legal notices.  Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans notes that “how will you promote the tool?” is one of the first questions they ask new clients — if you’re not going to promote it adequately to the people who need to know about it and use it, you’ve wasted your effort.  Similar to the issue raised in the previous bullet, this is such a critical element of effective public engagement — of this type or any type — that we really, simply, just have to do it.  We just do.  I don’t know why we’re so often reluctant to effectively promote our public engagement opportunities — whether we just don’t know, or we think that’s somehow too “commercial” an action for a civic event, or what.  But the fact of the matter is that we have to.


  • Several of the speakers demonstrated that use of technology-enabled tools and open data isn’t just a cool thing: propertly designed and enabled, open data and online tools allow residents to directly impact the things that they need — the things that make a community better.  Michelle Lee of Textizen told the story of how newly-integrated parcel and tax data was used to overcome an old assumption that chasing delinquent taxes would cost the city more than they would get — a realization that allowed the city to capture more of the tax money they had been missing, and lessen the burden on everyone else.  Frank also told a powerful story about a neighborhood in New York that responded to children being hit by vehicles to crowdsource a map of places where people felt unsafe — and then shared that map with local police officials to help them target speed enforcement.


  • Michelle also encapsulated the important relationship between open data and apps better than anyone I have ever heard: she described the need for apps to function as the “ViewMaster” for open data, which in
    View Master and photo discs
    From http://cultureeveryday.com/

    the form that we get it is usually unusable to anyone except for the hard-code coder.  As she put it, “the data is like the disc with the photos on it.  You can hold it up to the light or throw it at your brother, but unless you put it in the ViewMaster, you can’t really benefit from it.”   And most importantly, when we can see the data through the ViewMaster, we can use it to create a meaningful outcome that will last.  This is one of the issues that I think the open data movement has struggled a little bit with so far, but all four presenters were able to clearly demonstrate the power that open data, combined with a good user interface app, can create.


  • Along the same lines, Alicia Roualt of LocalData very articulately noted that communities can actually use data to bridge between governments and citizens.  In describing LocalData’s work with blight surveying in Detroit, she pointed out that the on-the-ground surveying was done by people who live in the community using an app on a phone or tablet, and that the data in the main project databases and maps was updated in real time.  This allowed both staff and advocates trying to deal with the messy, multi-moving-piece, often immediate issues of the city’s vacant and abandoned buildings to understand the situation with the highest level of accuracy possible.

Videos of each presentation are embedded below.  By sheer dumb luck, this session was followed by another conversation about the larger issues of technology in planning.  Stay tuned for some selections from that.

Spring/Summer speaking gigs added!

The Wise Economy Workshop Tour of Schlepping Around A Lot of Places is underway… and the house already looks like a cyclone hit it.  Perhaps by June someone else will learn to put the bowls in the dishwasher.  A girl can hope….

If you’re near one of these locations and you’d be interested in a hosting me for a presentation or a training, let me know and I’ll waive the travel expenses.

  • May 10, I will be back in Middlesboro, Kentucky for Better Block Part Deux, exploring how a small city can use a comprehensive, resilience-focused approach to community development to build a strong local economy — in a place where a strong economy has long been elusive.  I had a visit with Middlesboro last fall (you can learn a little about that here and here), and I’m looking forward to seeing more good stuff take hold here.
  • May 15, I will be keynoting the Clermont County Township Association’s annual dinner.  I’m talking about the challenges of doing meaningful public engagement, and how we can change how we involve the public to make it better for everyone involved.

Managing a contentious public meeting requires a sophisticated set of tools to keep potential conflicts under control and to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to speak up. It also requires knowing when to use those tools and how to do it in a way that makes all participants feel that their involvement matters. This session will explore various group management techniques used by successful facilitators to foster fair participation, lessen the likelihood of confrontational or counter-productive behavior, defuse conflict, and more. Participants will gain experience in using specific tactics through role-playing scenarios with fellow peers and colleagues.

This will be the third time I have done this session — which gets the participants out of their chairs and taking on roles like their favorite local crab and the dude who just wants to hear himself talk.  And gives them ways to manage that in conventional public meetings, and ways to restructure public meetings so that you don’t need to do that!  I’m looking forward to this — it’s not like Main Street people are shrinking violets anyways, so this should be something to see!

Ignite has become a fixture at IEDC’s recent conferences, but never has it been tried like this. In two separate Ignite-style panels, attendees will witness a succession of five minute, rapid-fire, get-to-the-point presentations, with time built in for speakers to answers questions on stage after they’re all done.

Ignite Presentation Sessions: The Power of Ideas: A brave new economic development idea. A twist in how people consider their roles within the profession. From new ways of thinking about impact to new functions for economic developers within their communities, these presentations are about dreaming big.

No idea what I’ve gotten myself into here, but it should be interesting!

  • June 17, I am leading a book discussion around the Local Economy Revolution  in Xenia, Ohio.  This is a test run for a discussion series I’m considering doing this fall.  Stay tuned!


  • July 23, I’ll be giving a webinar for Lorman on strategies that local governments can use to support small businesses.  That one hasn’t been formally put on the registration schedule yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.


  • August 21, I’ll be giving a keynote for the Michigan Economic Developer’s Association Annual Meeting on Sea Changes, partnerships and streamlining.  That one also hasn’t been formally announced yet, but I will let you know as soon as it is.


  • September 12-14, I’ll be doing something with regard to the new Strong Towns annual event in Minnesota.  More to come.


  • Somewhere between September 19 and 21, I’ll be leading a session on public engagement technology at a new and very cool-sounding event in Columbus, Ohio.  More on that when details are available.


  • October 9, I am speaking at the Ohio CDC Association Annual Conference in Columbus.



And here’s a few recent ones:

  • April 25, I did a training for the Greater Dayton RTA on managing public meetings and using collaborative small-group methods to get better public involvement.  It wasa great chance to learn more about the world of transit — and try out the training that I’ll use at the National Main Street Conference in a very different context!


  • April 28, I moderated a panel called Open Data, Apps and Planning” at the American Planning Association national conference in Atlanta, GA.  This session includes four amazing panelists, including the CEO of LocalData and Textizen, the director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, and the Director of OpenPlans.  That was a fascinating examination of the bleeding edge of technology and public engagement in planning, and the speakers were fabulous.  I’ve got video and audio to share, so be sure to check out these links.

There’s  several others floating around, so if you’re thinking about a speaker for your summer or fall events, please let me know soon.  Thanks!

Reaching the ones who don’t show up: Online tools for public engagement (annotated slides)

Public partic 20 APA 04 04 12 rev n annotated


This annotated presentation gives an overview of and some guildance regarding one of the elements of civic technology: public engagement.  It was given at the American Planning Association National Conference in 2012.

The Talent challenge for Economic Development types

Steve Fritsch seems to me to understand how economic development organizations need to remake their functioning better than anyone else I know of.  I don’t know why, but he gets the organizational culture, communication, broad-reach problem-solving that looks to me to be starting to define the divide between economic development organizations that thrive and those that are falling apart — losing staff, losing purpose, losing relevance and losing budget.  There’s a lot of calling out this deep challenge in this blog and in the Local Economy Revolution Book, but a lot of that to date has been in the context of the incentives debate.  But what Steve does beautifully is illustrate how the deep foundations of effective organizations work — and by extension, how they hold out the promise of getting us past the used-car-salesman, stick-our-fingers-in-our-ears-and-insist-everything’s-just-fine mode.  I’m often good at pointing out what’s wrong.  Steve’s a good one to listen to for relevant insights into how to build economic development organizations that can do what’s right.

Here’s Steve

Success emerges from any effort by effectively aligning the goals of effort with the skills inventory of the team that will be exerting the effort.  The laws of economics tell me that change in one requires change in the other.

The approaches that an organization takes to goal definition and talent identification can be standalone challenges on their own merits.  An exponential multiplier of the challenge emerges when we try to align goals and skills within the influences and objectives found within the multi-organizational partnership environment.

Getting organizations to simply agree on goals can be a challenge.  That said, it’s much easier to define the goals than to actually set out to achieve them.  You see, that currency called talent is required for the latter.

A few years ago, Forbes published the provocative article “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent“, indicating that top talent desires passion & mission, bureaucracy & leadership, accountability with empowerment, creativity & innovation, along with an emphasis professional development and a desire to be surrounded by other top talent in their working environments.

From Living Cities, here are characteristics of those foundational traits that make up the “right” way to structure a cross-sector partnership to make collective impact. Contained within these traits are goal clarity, accountability, capability, influence, communications, recalibration and an overall opportunistic rather than obligatory approach to the solutions and behaviors necessary to achieve them.

Yep, there’s appears to be a not-so-hidden relationship between an organization’s ability to excel at its talent retention efforts as well as within its various partnerships with other organizations.

The relationship seems to particularly manifest itself within these areas:

  • Inclusive approaches across all of the organizations to defining goals, then assembling a team that has not only the passion, but also the talent necessary in order to achieve them
  • Cultures of accountability with empowerment and enablement that are driven by communications, sharing and transparency
  • Ongoing willingness to re-evaluate and recalibrate the goals, and continuously develop and refine the team, approaches and resources that will make them successful

(Isn’t it curious that these factors can also be found in numerous articles aboutentrepreneurial success and adaptive leadership techniques?)

So it would appear that talented people are seeking a working environment that aligns with those characteristics found in cross sector collaborations and those cross sector collaborations can only be successful if they find the talent that aligns with those traits necessary for the partnerships to be successful.

On that note, I would also suggest that if an environment is failing in one (talent or real partnership collaboration), then it most likely is failing in the other.

The direction of many non-profits (and the “partnerships” among the many non-profits) has been historically driven by the “usual suspects” list of business leaders of great influence and funders with great resources…names that rarely change, and not necessarily the first names that we think of when we hear “adaptive” or “entrepreneurial”.

Perhaps the great opportunity before the collaborative, non-profit systems of organization is to engage a greater volume of these entrepreneurial and adaptive leadership approaches to the goal definition, talent identification and overall systems design in cross sector collaborations.  Change requires change.   And change is work.

Thanks for sharing.

Shrinking Cities (Back to the Future)

My friend Jason Segedy posted this excellent piece of analysis at thestile1972.tumblr.com/, and I felt that this was probably the best quantitative sum-up of the challenge of post-industrial communities, such as those that make up the Rust Belt.  I don’t know how he found the time to do this, but he pulled together a set of data that is both humbling… and encouraging.  As we’ve said more than once, the challenges our communities are facing didn’t spring up overnight, and it’s ridiculous to think we can solve them overnight, either.  But if you’re taking a long-term view, then there’s a little comfort in the idea that we have time to keep plugging at it.

Here’s Jason:

I’ve seen a lot of lists drawing attention to America’s shrinking cities over the years.  These lists normally show population declines since 1950, or since the city’s year of peak population.

Both of these measures are interesting and useful.  1950 is a good year to look back to, since it represents the first census since the end of World War II.  The end of the war is often looked at as the beginning of the suburban boom:  the interstate highway system, shopping malls, separated commercial and residential land uses, and low-density housing that is not walkable or transit accessible.

Examining a city’s decline since its year of peak population is useful for benchmarking a city against itself, but is slightly less useful for making comparisons to other cities.  In the portions of the Rust Belt centered around the steel and automotive industries, the population decline generally begins around 1950, 1960, or even 1970.

In the portions of the Rust Belt located further east, the decline begins even earlier – generally around 1920 or 1930.

What I haven’t seen a lot of, though, are lists that actually go back this far – to 1920, for example.  1920 is an interesting year to look at, because you don’t find many large U.S. cities that reached their peak population earlier than 1920.  1920 also marks the tail end of the great wave of European immigration.  Most northern cities continued to grow long after 1920, due to high levels of domestic migration, largely from the rural south and from Appalachia.

So, looking back to 1920 cancels out a lot of the statistical “noise” associated with the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war suburban boom, taking us back to the initial heyday of the industrial era in many Rust Belt cities.

1920 is also a significant date because all of the cities on this list were large enough by then to have developed a substantial urban core with tens or hundreds of thousands of housing units in it.  So, every city on this list has a significant stock of housing that is at least 100 years old.  This means that the cities which have not yet experienced much in the way of gentrification, redevelopment, or neighborhood revitalization (and this is most of them) will be facing increasingly difficult challenges in terms of vacancy, abandonment, and brownfield mitigation.

For many of these cities, it will be a race against time to see whether they can turn around their residential housing markets – either through rehabilitating older properties, or though constructing tens of thousands of marketable new housing units.  If they cannot learn how to do this, there is little reason to believe that their population decline will slow down.  In fact, it could get even worse before it gets better.

So, here is a list of U.S. cities that had at least 100,000 people at some point in their history that are smaller than they were in 1920.  They are ranked by their net change in population between 1920 and 2010.

1) St. Louis, MO – loss of 453,603; 772,897 in 1920; 319,294 in 2010

2) Cleveland, OH – loss of 400,026; 796,841 in 1920; 396,815 in 2010

3) Philadelphia, PA – loss of 297,773; 1,823,779 in 1920; 1,526,006 in 2010

4) Pittsburgh, PA – loss of 282,639; 588,343 in 1920; 305,704 in 2010

5) Detroit, MI – loss of 279,301; 993,078 in 1920; 713,777 in 2010

6) Buffalo, NY – loss of 245,465; 506,775 in 1920; 261,310 in 2010

7) Newark, NJ – loss of 137,384; 414,524 in 1920; 277,140 in 2010

8) Boston, MA – loss of 130,466; 748,060 in 1920; 617,594 in 2010

9) Baltimore, MD – loss of 112,865; 733,826 in 1920; 620,961 in 2010

10) Cincinnati, OH – loss of 104,302; 401,247 in 1920; 296,945 in 2010

11) Rochester, NY – loss of 85,185; 295,750 in 1920; 210,565 in 2010

12) Youngstown, OH – loss of 65,376; 132,358 in 1920; 66,982 in 2010

13) Scranton, PA – loss of 61,694; 137,783 in 1920; 76,089 in 2010

14) Providence, RI – loss of 59,553; 237,595 in 1920; 178,042 in 2010

15) Jersey City, NJ – loss of 50,506; 298,103 in 1920; 247,597 in 2010

16) New Orleans, LA – loss of 43,390; 387,219 in 1920; 343,829 in 2010

17) Wilmington, DE – loss of 39,317; 110,168 in 1920; 70,851 in 2010

18) Camden, NJ – loss of 38,965; 116,309 in 1920; 77,344 in 2010

19) Trenton, NJ – loss of 34,376; 119,289 in 1920; 84,913 in 2010

20) New Haven, CT – loss of 32,758; 162,537 in 1920; 129,779 in 2010

21) Utica, NY – loss of 31,921; 94,156 in 1920; 62,235 in 2010

22) Fall River, MA – loss of 31,628; 120,485 in 1920; 88,857 in 2010

23) Syracuse, NY – loss of 26,547; 171,717 in 1920; 145,170 in 2010

24) New Bedford, MA – loss of 26,145; 121,217 in 1920; 95,072 in 2010

25) Reading, PA – loss of 19,702; 107,784 in 1920; 88,082 in 2010

26) Somerville, MA – loss of 17,337; 93,091 in 1920; 75,754 in 2010

27) Albany, NY – loss of 15,488; 113,344 in 1920; 97,856 in 2010

28) Canton, OH – loss of 14,084; 87,091 in 1920; 73,007 in 2010

29) Hartford, CT – loss of 13,261; 138,036 in 1920; 124,775 in 2010

30) Duluth, MN – loss of 12,652; 98,917 in 1920; 86,265 in 2010

31) Dayton, OH – loss of 11,032; 152,559 in 1920; 141,527 in 2010

32) Akron, OH – loss of 9,325; 208,435 in 1920; 199,110 in 2010

33) Lynn, MA – loss of 8,819; 99,148 in 1920; 90,329 in 2010

34) Lowell, MA – loss of 6,240; 112,759 in 1920; 106,519 in 2010

35) Chicago, IL – loss of 6,107; 2,701,705 in 1920; 2,695,598 in 2010

36) Cambridge, MA – loss of 4,532; 109,694 in 1920; 105,162 in 2010

37) St. Joseph, MO – loss of 1,159; 77,939 in 1920; 76,780 in 2010

38) Niagara Falls, NY – loss of 567; 50,760 in 1920; 50,193 in 2010

There are some surprises on this list.  There are cities that are “shrinking cities” by any possible definition that I expected to see on here, which are not.  There are also cities listed here, which are not generally perceived to be “shrinking cities”.

Some of the cities that are smaller than they were in 1920, really have not lost much population since that time, nor since their peak.  These cities generally peaked-out around 1920 or 1930, and could be categorized as “East Coast Gentrifiers” and include places like Lynn, Lowell, and Cambridge – all located within the suburban orbit of Boston.

Other cities are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and their degree of decline, if anything, is understated by looking solely at this list.  Not only have they lost considerable population since 1920, but they have lost at least half of their population since their peak, which generally didn’t occur until 1950.  These cities could be categorized as “Rust Belt Poster Children” and include places like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown.

There are other cities that could also be classified as “Rust Belt Poster Children” that do not show up on this list at all, due to the fact that their rapid growth occurred after 1920.  They grew in the immediate pre and post World War II years, and then rapidly declined shortly thereafter. Cities in this category include smaller places like Gary, Flint, and East St. Louis, as well as larger cities like Toledo and Milwaukee.

Several cities, some that show up on this list, and some that do not, have experienced numerically significant population loss, but have either slowed or reversed long-standing declines, and are currently in the process of “gentrifying” and redeveloping many of their historic core neighborhoods.  Cities in this category include places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

As we move further into the 2010s, it will be interesting to see how redevelopment efforts in places like Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. play out.  Is it a permanent sea change that will dramatically improve the economic prospects for all residents?  Is it something that redevelops much of the core, but ultimately leaves most residents in the dark, leading to more inequality, with poverty moving increasingly to the suburbs?  Or is it just a temporary blip on the radar?

For cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Youngstown, where the bottom has virtually fallen out; and for others like Akron, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, whose decline has been more manageable, but are still facing significant challenges, the answer to these questions could prove to be extremely important.

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at WhyThisWorkMattersBook.com.  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.




Buildings R Us, and that’s a problem: Incubators and Economic Development

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately in the entrepreneurship/incubator/accelerator space — in part because of some client projects and in part because of some things going on with my own business (more on that sometime soon). And I’m starting to think a bit about the challenges that face local governments and community nonprofits when it comes to trying to facilitate entrepreneurial growth in places that need help.


As I’ve watched communities start to venture into that space, it’s becoming clear to me that we need better guidance for communities that decide to take this on.  While entrepreneurial-focused approaches make a hell of a lot more sense for most of the communities I deal with than a heavy focus on recruitment, the path to Startup Nation isn’t an easy skip down a yellow brick road.  Growing entrepreneurship takes strategies that are profoundly different from what we have historically done, and we need to go into this with an acute awareness of being in a new type of environment.

series of chemistry flasks
Not a business incubator, but a yeast incubator. Sometimes we act like it’s the same thing. wikipedia.org


This essay actually started out as field notes – an exploration of the issues around a challenging initiative being undertaken by a particular  smallish city, one for which I have a hell of a lot of respect.  This is one of those places where an undersized, overworked, unbelievably determined staff is fighting to overcome decades of the kind of disinvestment and decay that old manufacturing towns know so well.  And while they have made amazing strides in a short time (the coffee shop that I’m writing this in qualifies as one of the small ones), there’s still a long, long road ahead.


As part of this little city staff’s determination to Make Things Happen, they recently took over management of a business incubator that has been operating out of an old office building for a couple of decades (The city owns the building, but the incubator is a separate nonprofit).  I’ve known at least one of the staffers for a long time, even mentored him a bit when he was in grad school.


And in my usual big sister sort of way, I walked away from a recent tour of the facility with a lot of worries about the future of this initiative, and about these people, who I want to see succeed.


Since they’re pushing so hard at such a tough job, I don’t want to say anything that might make the political aspects of their work any harder.  But at the same time, the issues I think they’re going to be facing need to be on their radar — and on the radar of all the hundreds of communities that are starting to turn to incubator/accelerator/entrepreneurship strategies to try to plug the holes in their economic development.  Chances are you know a few of those, as well.


Building-based in a virtual world


Traditional incubators were developed on the basis of a physical space assumption: small businesses, the logic went, need offices, receptionists, board rooms, kitchens, coffee makers, so on.  And new, small businesses can’t afford that stuff on their own.  So our incubator will hold those pieces in common, and the businesses in the little side offices will use them when they need them. Providing those central spaces is what we need to do to help them succeed.


That’s how the incubator that I toured was set up in the early 90s, and that’s how it, basically, continues to work.


A lot of other people have written about the shortcomings of this model of business incubation, so it doesn’t make sense for me to belabor that here.  If you’re not familiar with the unaddressed issues and unintended consequences of traditional business incubators, here’s the Cliff Notes version:

  • Maintaining the incubator building typically costs a whole lot more than the real estate expenses associated with the work.
  • The fact that the incubator has to carry a lot of overhead associated with the building means that there’s a lot of pressure on incubator management to keep occupancy rates as high as possible.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high works against what is supposed to be the purpose of the incubator, which is to grow new businesses to the point where they can fledge into other spaces in the city, making room for the next new startup.  Incubators often end up with a lot of little businesses that enjoy the low rent, stay small and never leave.
  • The pressure to keep occupancy rates high also pushes many traditional incubators to accept pretty much any business that wants to go in.  That means that the incubator can end up subsidizing businesses that don’t add much to the economics of the community.


(Obligatory caveat: of course, a lot of great businesses have come out of traditional incubators, and lots of lovely businesses that do lots of nice things have ended up as long-term residents of incubators.  Don’t hate me.)


The incubator in this community has had a lot of these challenges.  There’s several businesses in it today that haven’t grown and haven’t changed over the years that they’ve been in that building, essentially having their operating expenses subsidized by the nonprofit and the City.  And since the former executive director was apparently evaluated based on the building’s occupancy, there was no reason to get picky about tenants – or set up anything to get them out.  Those tenant businesses have had had a pretty sweet deal.  Don’t blame ‘em for sticking around.


My friend, the interim executive director on loan from the City, is trying to change that – target recruitment, make occupancy time-limited and dependent on growth targets, etc.  But of course, that’s all easier said than done, especially when you have that kind of precedent (and a handful of lawyers among the old-line tenants.)


The bigger problem I worry about, though, is that the real estate part of the equation hasn’t gone away.  The City stepped in because they own the building… and they pay the utilities.  It’s logical under that arrangement that they will want to get the building’s (paying, even if cheap, still paying) occupancy as high as possible.  This ain’t a town that has money lying around.  They’re pounding on economic development because they need all the jobs and taxes they can get.


The problem is that the presence, the overhead, the cost of the building, hasn’t changed.  And the pressure to pay for the building may push the City back into the same situation that the incubator was in before.


The other building-related challenge stems from the building itself, and this is also pretty typical of community-based incubators: it’s in an old building that was built for a specific purpose.  In this case, the building was the old City Hall.  But it could just as well be a vacant department store, an old warehouse, and so on.  It’s something that someone was trying to repurpose.  Very common among incubators.


I have decent historic preservation cred, and I can say rather adamantly that I would not want this building torn down.  It’s a piece of Early Streamline style awesomeness that features terrazzo floors and murals and gleaming stair railings.


But that doesn’t mean that it’s right for an incubator.


What’s wrong with it?  The biggest problem that I can see is that the office spaces are just like you would imagine in an old city hall – small, separated, sometimes kind of dark.  The biggest problem is that this configuration isn’t very flexible.


I wrote a piece in the Local Economy Revolution book about the new, emerging types of businesses as being “ninja-like” in their flexibility.  Small businesses, start up or no, have a lot of disadvantages compared to big ones, but one of their assets is that they can shift their market, their perspective, their product, a whole lot faster than a big corporation with lots of approval layers.  And in an economy where change isn’t only fast, it’s accelerating, that turns out to be a big asset.


But flexibility in market strategy requires flexibility in operations as well.  We might need room for three employees today, 14 next month, five the month after that. We might need space for collaboration, for small private meetings, for private phone calls.  Are we fabricating our prototypes right here where we work, or do we (and can we) subcontract to someone else to make it? (Subcontracting costs money, and startups don’t tend to have a lot extra of that).   The space that a business occupies in the incubator needs to facilitate the work, not get in the way – small businesses like these operate so close to the bone that they can’t afford space inefficiency.


Old city hall offices aren’t exactly built for this kind of flex.  They have big heavy walls, thick doors, lots of the same size spaces.  Thinking about the startups I know working out of accelerators and co-working spaces across the country, I had a hard time picturing them operating out of these spaces.  The city has decided to target specific green industries in the space, and given the community’s unique assets, that appears to be the right match.  But for many small businesses, the spaces available in this building may fit pretty awkwardly with how and what they need to be doing.


The other problem with an old office building as a start-up space: old office buildings were designed for privacy, but start-ups need connection.  Brad Feld has talked about the need to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem; Tony Hsieh talks in terms of facilitating collisions.  Both are identifying the same fundamental need: startups that are trying to create something innovative desperately need to find fuel for that innovation outside of their own company.  Big businesses do this too – Fortune 500s do a lot of their innovating by buying smaller companies or licensing products invented by someone else – but a startup has to find new ideas, new products, new solutions, through its own network.  As I have noted in the writing that I have done about the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, the power of collisions is so important that the Downtown Project puts an enormous amount of thought and effort into creating ways for people to collide around new ideas. And I’ve written about places like Annapolis, Maryland, where the economic development agency holds a regular series of events designed to create opportunities for those kinds of collisions.


It’s hard to collide in a bunch of small offices separated by dim hallways.


None of this is to say that this city and this incubator cannot thrive and incubate great businesses that catalyze a new economy, like they are envisioning.  But it does mean that the limitations of the physical spaces will have to be addressed – both in terms of operations, and in terms of funding.


First, it’s going to be very important for this incubator to get picky.  They’ve started doing that with the decision to shift away from a host-anyone approach to a targeting based on a few industries where they already have community assets.  But they’re also going to have to spend some time with prospective businesses making sure that they understand how that business is going to operate – what their work processes will look like, how they will handle prototyping, etc.  And with true startups, they might have to help the businesses figure these things out themselves.  Not all startups are going to be able to succeed in this space – some may need much more of a workshop or an open plan or a micro-space (a lot of the newest accelerator spaces don’t provide much more than a work table).  It might make sense to figure out a Plan B for businesses that the city wants to support, but that can’t operate well in the confines of this particular building.
Second, the building won’t help collisions happen too readily, so they are going to have to put some thought into how to help generate opportunities for collisions. They’re planning on offering business classes in conjunction with the local Small Business Development Center, but this kind of basic training isn’t a collision-generator.  And collisions are not the same as the dreaded networking, either.


Enabling the kind of collisions that allow the tenants and potential tenants to see the value of being in this incubator will require a suite of events that get people thinking and talking around big, and new, ideas.  There’s a tendency to assume that technology-enabled businesses don’t need that face-to-face anymore, but connection and thought-fuelling events play a central role in every entrepreneurship ecosystem I know of (for a couple of good examples, check out the StartUp Grind and 1 Million Cups programs in cities nationwide).


Finally, the city and the nonprofit are going to have to come to terms with the fact that an incubator, even one with a full house, only addresses a tiny fraction of the entrepreneurship that a community like this one needs. It takes a lot of startups to make a change in a local economy – a lot will die or move, others won’t grow much.  An incubator alone isn’t going to move the needle – and since one of the driving motivations in starting a lot of incubators is to find a use for that big ol’ expensive building, it can become far too easy to focus on building operations and management.


To make a real difference, though, an incubator has to have an impact far beyond the businesses within its walls – it has to become the hub, the center of activity, for businesses across the city.  Every business that is trying to innovate, trying to grow, needs information, ideas, and those collisions.  An incubator that actually makes a difference has to reach well beyond its own walls and connect to the entire entrepreneur community.


I don’t know what is going to happen with the incubator that I’ve described here.  I hope that my colleagues there learn from their incubator’s history and address these challenges before they become a problem.  But we are, all of us as communities, at the very beginning of learning how to grow entrepreneurs.  We’ll all make lots more mistakes, but hopefully we can all learn together.





20% off Print version of Local Economy Revolution now through March 31

Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on with those people, but we’ll take it…

I just received the following message from Lulu.com, who produces the print version of The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help:


Celebrate International Waffle Day!

This morning, while eating our plate of waffles, the toaster left an amazing message on one of our syrupy circles — offer 20% off everything on Lulu.com!

Of course, we’d never ignore what a burnt waffle tells us to do. That’s right, everything on Lulu.com is 20% off through March 31 with code WAFFLESSAY20.

Shop now, and don’t forget to eat your waffles today.

So, I know better than to argue with people who get messages from waffles.  If you haven’t gotten a print copy of The Local Economy Revolution for yourself or your favorite board member/employee/colleague/spouse/ assorted Person Who Gives a Damn, here’s your chance.  Get on it.

discount code WAFFLESSAY20
Don’t ask me. But do buy the book.


Another selection from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book: Why This Work Matters

As we continue to tie up the loose ends on the next Wise Fool publication, I wanted to share with you one of the great essays from this collection.  As you may have seen, Why This Work Matters features 11 essays from community professionals of all types, from all across the country, writing about their personal (and sometimes painful) experiences, frustrations and discouragements — and what they draw on to keep going when it would be easy to give up.

I know enough about the situation that Joe Lawniczak has been in over the past few years to understand where he was coming from when he wrote about the frustrations of the state bureaucracy in which he works.  And I know how beloved he is by the communities that benefit from his efforts.  Joe is a class act, a dedicated community servant, and just about the nicest guy you’ll meet, too.  Here’s a selection from what he very kindly wrote for inclusion in Why this Work Matters.

In September, 2001, I became the historic preservation and design specialist with the Wisconsin Main Street program, a statewide downtown revitalization program. I had finally arrived at my dream job, and now had the privilege of working with building and business owners across the state, helping them restore their historic building facades. It was not an easy road to get to this point, and it was not an easy decision to make the changes necessary to accept it.

Prior to taking this position, I worked at a private architectural firm for over 12 years, with a few of those spent attending college full time as well. I started out at the very ground level, and slowly worked my way up. For six of those years, I was an active volunteer for a local Main Street district, providing preservation and design assistance to a handful of local building owners. In a short time, I had made a name for myself locally and at the state level.  I was the one the firm came to rely upon for most historic restoration projects.

I was in a good place.

When my predecessor at Wisconsin Main Street decided to leave, he called me to encourage me to apply. After much soul searching and advice from friends, I decided to take the leap. It was a decision that has changed my life for the better in so many ways.

But when I first arrived, I was far from impressed.  I loved my job, and I believed strongly in the downtown revitalization approach that Main Street programs follow, as I still do to this day. But the fact that we were housed in a state agency full of bureaucracy and incompetency at many levels was just about more than I could handle.

I remember my first week of work. I arrived at 7:30 AM and was almost the only one in the office. At my previous job, people would have wondered why I was so late.

I remember asking a co-worker how I could obtain a building access card so I could come in to work on nights and weekends. He said he didn’t know because he would never work overtime.

Over the years, I saw  countless times when upper management would have us reevaluate each of our programs in an effort to create more efficiency. Each time, we spent countless hours and endless meetings discussing it, and never once did they implement any of our recommendations. To me, it seemed like they merely wanted to make changes so they could say they were doing something, whether the changes were necessary or not. Ironically, because of all the bureaucracy, not much ever actually changed, but the waste of time was excruciating.

Hiring freezes and budget cuts took their toll as well. When I began in 2001, Wisconsin Main Street had five full-time and three part-time employees. Eventually we were whittled down to three full-time staff.

After my first year, whenever someone would ask how my new job was, I would simply say I love the job, I hate where it’s housed.


Thankfully, after I got to know more of my co-workers and more of the programs, I discovered that I was merely focusing on the few bad apples. There were dozens upon dozens of hard working, dedicated, passionate people in our division, nearly all of them employees, not management. Most of them knew their programs inside and out, were experts in their fields, and considered the people they worked with in the field to be friends and partners in community development.

None of them were in this for the money. They could have made far more in the private sector. They did it because they believed in what they do.

I began following many of my co-workers’ leads, devoting my energies to serving the communities first and foremost. Making the communities happy rather than trying to appease management made sense, since management would only be there for a few years anyway. This took a huge weight off my shoulders, and gave me a newfound energy and motivation. I valued the feedback from the business and building owners in the communities far more than any feedback I’d ever get fro  m management, which was almost non-existent anyway.

As of this writing, I have worked with over 950 business and building owners to come up with appropriate designs for the renovation of their buildings exterior. Not one of them has ever intentionally wanted to do something inappropriate to their building. Most often they just didn’t know the best solution.

In the past 12 years, I seem to have earned the respect from my counterparts and other downtown development experts across the country. I have been able to travel around America providing speaking and training sessions, and design charettes,, and I’ve written several feature articles in national publications. That level of respect has given me confidence and motivation, without question.

But more importantly, I’ve earned the trust and respect of the communities that I work in day in and day out.

I honestly don’t know that I would be where I am today if I didn’t learn to accept and cope with the adversity that comes with working in a bureaucracy. Because of that, I’ve been able to weather many of the storms I’ve faced, including turnover with some of my key co-workers. And I continue to have a passion for what I do, as long as I remember who I’m truly working for…the communities.

Thanks, Joe.  You rock.

Mini-Audiobooks available at Local Economy Revolution

Just wanted to make sure that you knew that I’ve been recording mini-audiobooks of selections from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  There’s close to an hour’s worth of content so far, including selections from each of the sections of the book.  If you are thinking about checking the book out, this might be an easy way to give it a try.

Take a listen and let me know what you think.


I try to record a new selection weekly, so you might want to bookmark it or download the Soundcloud app for easy access to this (and a ton of other good stuff).   Eventually there may be a full audiobook available.

Field Notes: Downtown Project, Las Vegas

Note: for regular readers of the Wise Economy Workshop, the following is going to look like…

well, a rambling mess.  

The purpose of Field Notes is to be able to put out some early observations about a community or orgainzation that is doing something interesting and new in the world of community revitalization, but to do it at an early stage where you can be part of the conversation (and while I’m still at the point where I haven’t figured out what I’m saying yet…)

If your dedicated enough to find this and slog through it, you’re definitely someone whose opinion I want to hear.  I know you will probably have lots of unanswered questions, but…

  • what looks interesting or intriguing to you?
  • what sounds crazy?
  • what just plain ‘ole doesn’t make sense?
  • what else would you want to know?

These are always a little bit of an experiment, so who knows what will happen next.  But as you will be able to tell, I’ve been looking very closely at what the Downtown Project is doing, and there’s something — really, a lot of somethings — here that I think we could all learn some very valuable lessons from.  And I think they’re showing us a new way to do this work — one that probably makes more sense with the sea changes going on in the world than the way we have been approaching community revitailization.  But at this point, I am mostly checking my understanding and my early interpretations.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might start by browsing through http://downtownproject.com/

So, I’d love it if you’d leave your comments below.  If you want to say something to me that you don’t want to go all public, however, please feel free to send me an email at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Also, for truth in advertising, I made some revisions to this on March 21 – partly to make sure I caught some things from a conversation that I had neglected to include in the first version, and partly to include a few observations from a conversation I had after this was initially written…. well, perhaps I should say regurgitated.  And then I went back and tried to start organizing around some broad themes, which may have helped or may have made it more confusing to anyone not inside my head.  There’s still a pretty good mess going on here — I mean my writing, not the project.  

Per my usual habits, my commentary is in brackets [.]  Well, at least some of it, since this is partly notes on things people told me and partly my ruminations.  My old journalism professors would be unhappy.  But I dropped out of journalism school, so who cares…

Thanks.  You’re awesome.  Enjoy.


Field Notes From Downtown Project Las Vegas



“we think of what we are doing here as increasing efficiency, productivity, happiness.”

There’s an emerging awareness: in larger companies, as you grow, how do you stay innovative?  One important way is to seek innovation from the outside. Emphasis on working with and integrating with a wide variety of people.  In a sense, vision is to apply that to a city.

[That certainly jives with the strategy I’ve seen Procter & Gamble and other big corps using.  But I think it’s critical not to forget how much that upends conventional bureaucracy and hierarchy — it’s been hard enough for companies to make that shift.  For community-based initiatives, with at least some who have interest in stability….interesting perspective to consider why this kind of collaboration becomes so hard]

Downtown Project is really a start up itself.  There was no way to really exactly know how to do this [that’s refreshing, given all the supposed experts who claim that they do!].  So the mandate was always Go, Go and Figure it Out — figure it out while you are doing it.  That implies an assumption of iteration, an expectation that some things will not work out as planned or outright fail.

 Goal of DP as articulated by city ED staff: try to get 10,000 additional people to live and work in downtown in the next 5 years. 

The concept of organizing around collisions takes what we have heard from people like Glaser and Jacobs to a new level. Instead of passively assuming that the power of a city is in some inherent, natural ability to foster connections, DTLV seems to be purposely designing the spaces and the experiences to generate interactions.  And I think it’s important that attention is being given to the physical spaces and to the events, like the Speaker’s Series.  A lot of downtown organizations do special events, but they’re usually designed to attract attention, not to build internal capacity/collisions.

Organization, strategy, culture

Observation of what’s unique about DP: “It’s not operating as a closed system.”


This basic decentralized model seems to drive the whole range of activities.  At least some of the space improvements have been driven by people—e.g., the dog park.  Process as described: someone says “we need X.”  Community, including Tech leadership, takes the fact that a person raised that idea as an indicator that it’s worth pursuing (a lot of trust in the people on the street!).  Person with idea is encouraged to go do it.  Person with idea gets as far as they can with it on their own resources, comes back to the DTLV organization when they have hit the limit of how far they can go and lays out what is needed to complete.  Then, only then, DTLV helps. As it was described to me: you get as far as you can with what you can muster and then get help to get over barriers… “I need a check for X in order for this thing that’s going to be good for the community to happen.”  People are expected, it seems to take the initiative to make the place better.  Italics are my emphasis.  People are expected to take the initiative!


Compare that to how communities usually do physical improvement projects….that’s a massive, revolutionary, almost inverted model compared to what we usually do.  It implies that the person on the street is just as likely to know the right answer as the leadership, and that’s a huge leap of faith. It implies that everyday people can and should take that initiative.  It implies that trying and risking failure is OK, and that a messy, maybe fumbling, maybe disorganized start as the people who want to do it try to figure it out, is OK.


Part of me thinks this should be applicable anywhere, but I also wonder a little bit what happens when you try a model like this in a more dense environment, where the experimenting and fumbling, at least with some activities, could have a much more direct impact on other people.  Part of what might make that a little easier here is that there is a lot of open space – vacant apartments to shoot the podcast in, vacant lots to figure out how to do a dog park without causing chaos for the house next door.

Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).

There’s high emphasis on very intensive seeking of collisions. High emphasis on being engaged part of the community – for Tech Fund people, clearly being part of that community, but there seems to be an intent to at least blur those boundaries as much as possible.  I wonder how the social pressure to do that falls out – there’s clearly a strong internal set of norms around that.  How much do the people who are not funded by the Tech Fund or are not seeking funding buy into that?  The funding element definitely puts a different angle on it compared to the conventional community-building strategies.  It’s an intensification of the conventional culture building method.  Was that part of the intent?

Person from Tech Fund business said that funded businesses were not obligated to locate in DTLV, but that they did so from being convinced of the value of the environment and the network.  He described it as being a vision that was laid out to them that they decided that they wanted to be a part of.  It was an invitation, not a requirement.  If that’s true, that’s a powerful testimony.

At this point, about half of the companies in the ecosystem are not connected to the Tech Fund—they just came. Some are probably trying to get in position to get Tech Fund funding in the future, but some, like the woman working on the real estate thing, aren’t.  And I met at least a couple of guys who were sort of freelancers, who could live anywhere but chose to come here, even though they aren’t formally associated with one of the businesses.  That sounded like a very new development.  Is it just going where you think the jobs will be?  Is it some kind of cachet?  Or is it attracting the people who understand and want the environment that is being built?

Cultural difference implied by the hug vs the handshake…you never get hugged by a person you’ve just met back east.

Still amazing how strongly they cite the Speaker Series as this collision creator.  The new ideas cross fertilization.  Interesting that the low tech approach is so effective in this context.

Activities, Programs, Events

There is a lot going on here.  The sheer number of specific programs, initiatives, activities, going on far outstrips any other downtown I know of.  And if you look at it from the entry point of those activities, you see pretty quickly that they’re connected, aligned somehow, but they’re not coming from a central source.  Different things have different leaders and participants, not all of whom are formally obligated to be doing what they’re doing in the traditional sense (for example, the podcast).

“Companies” within the project [I’m not sure if they’re officially established as conventional separate corporations or if they’re sort of subsidiaries or departments]:

Gold Spike [former casino, gathering space and restaurant].

Bunk House [temporary visitor lodging; is this the upstairs of the Gold Spike?]

Mixed Use [I don’t know what this means in my notes]

Container Park


Also communication team — “People Ops” and construction management

Around this group — sort of the nucleus — are the companies that the TechFund etc. have invested in.   And there are an increasing number of new people coming in as well.


Connecting to the rest of the city

There seems to be a priority on building that web of connections beyond the tech community.  Based on the information that goes out from the Ticker and the Downtownzen magazine, there’s a lot of performers and musicians and artists who seem to be pulling into this.

Note importance in approach of restaurants and coffee shops — building and engaging community.  Gives people a reason to come downtown.  Also note the fact that young families come downtown because of the Container Park — a “sea change” in how residents view Downtown!  [Note that this observation came from DTLV staff!]

Relationships with other parts of the Vegas community: Bridge-building with the arts community, which is about a mile away.  There was an initial sense of competition or overshadowing, but there’s been work on building bridges.  DTLV took over the First Friday event from the people operating it [not clear if that was a person or an organization] because they didn’t have capacity to keep it running.

It’s been easier for DTLV to connect to younger [assuming non-tech embedded] young people  “seems natural.”

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

Relationship with other organizations and government

Trying to convince the community that they are not taking over!  Hence shifting focus to connectedness and collisions, and away from “community.”  [They were hitting that old problem of everyone thinks they know what the “community” is and what the “community” needs, but they’re all actually looking at different communities within the space.]

Staff noted that people started coming to them “like we were government.” [Given pressures on the local government in recent years and the length of time where there’s been this lack of investment in the downtown area, that’s not surprising.  Happens a lot, even when it’s not widely know that an organization has money.] Staff noted that the City has been a great partner [not a funding partner, of course — no public funds in any of this.  Wonder how that changes the actual work and choices…].  City has been willing to learn and change.  When started the Container Park, zoning wasn’t anything near what was needed.  Worked through all the waivers and variances… joke was that is was “waiver world”  [The fact that a City was even willing to take this on, and didn’t just shut it down with no’s, says something very profound..]

City identifies its econ dev strategy as “young tech” firms — past the VC stage, in need of an environment where they can access talent [flexibly and efficiently]

City treats parking as an economic development service, not an a utility.  Effort to increase willing payers and decrease citations.  [interesting angle on it — not sure how /if it fits in with the rest, but interesting insight and a potential good idea for elsewhere.]

Emerging issues:

  • Lack of empty building inventory [especially building types that can be readily adapted to white collar tech].  Mostly not there, but City concerned with marking sure new development occurs at the right scale.
  • Current downtown-convenient housing = mostly “inner ring single family neighborhoods.” Conventional western city scale.  Much old [meaning, in that awkward age between not new and not old enough to be charming.  Also, since most of it is post-1930, my guess would be that quality of construction/materials may make revitalization harder.] Need for urban infill and rental at different price points.
  • Transit [discussed Cleveland BRT]
  • Higher education: UNLV not downtown, not dowtown higher education presence yet, UNLV “aspires” to be a Tier 1 research institution.

But what happens when the rest of the city catches on, when they want it to be “their” downtown too?  My guess would be right now that most City residents don’t go near downtown unless they work there.  Which is the case in lots of towns.  But is there a risk that this downtown approach makes downtown a district for one subset of the population — more like a district than the idealized downtown?  Certainly the Container Park sort of pushes against that with its inclusiveness of children, but what happens if you don’t look like the rest of the clientele?  Is a lower income African American family going to feel welcome going in there?

It’s not technically a public space.

But in a downtown that maybe hasn’t had that idealized “downtown” since before World War II, is that actually a loss?  Or is it a loss that anyone will care about?  Or is it just another piece of the mosaic, fitting one niche, like Eastern Avenue or Chinatown fit their niches?

There is a certain irony in the fact that the critical (and rather vacuous) general media coverage lately (the  Las Vegas Sun article and the  LA Times article) both cast everything in the same molds that I’ve heard in the Downtown PushMe-PullYou in I think every town I have ever encountered.  Everyone bemoans what poor shape downtown is in, New Guard comes in and starts making change, old-timers protest about being pushed out.  New Guard is the hero of one side and the demon of the other.  It’s Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, Cleveland’s Euclid corridor, Pittsburgh’s south side, Chicago, Louisville, Boston, etc. etc. etc. over again.  In terms of the complaints in the articles, they could have been talking about 3CDC, or the Gateway, or any of a thousand other urban revitalization projects in a hundred cities.

The really strange thing here is that the coverage to date (at least those two articles) has been so intensively personality-driven – completely insisting on a Puppeteer somehow pulling every string.  Usually the spin is that there’s some cabal of somewhat shadowy figures who are supposedly pulling all the strings.  But it doesn’t take long, actually paying attention to what’s going on on the ground in DTLV, for that story line to come apart.  This is the most non-Big Money Guy Forcing Everyone To Do What He Wants revitalization in a city of this size that I have ever seen.  The level of decentralization – the acting out of, really, the basic principles of holocracy in a community environment – that I think is what actually sets this apart.  For DTLV, money buys speed of change,  but not all that much control.  Compare that to most places – most efforts spend the bulk of their money on controlling and molding the environment into what they want. Midtown Detroit is probably Exhibit A.  There is stunningly little master-planned activity, seemingly of any type, going on in DTLV.

What is going to mean to the regular (non Zappos) residents?  Does it remain just a little foreign thing that they’ve heard about?  Does it change the perception of career choices for kids?

As a whole, this is definitely a town that has come recently to a pretty sharp awareness of its own history.  There’s a marketing sensibility that perhaps people here might pick up on more intuitively, so perhaps it’s simply a matter of pragmatically realizing what they’ve got to work with.  But it seems like a very different sense of itself than during the era when things were imploded without concern.

The big question for Hsieh himself, I think, is what’s going to happen when he finds himself in Gilbert’s shoes.  There’s no one else in this town to do that — not the Wynns or any other old guard—there’s been a definite community leadership vacuum, and Hsieh is about to find himself thrust into that whether he’s ready or not.  Gilbert in Detroit took that on willingly – he was ready to step into the void, probably because he was tired of the downward spiral and had the conventional CEO type mind set of making it happen.  I think there’s a very different model between these two.  And Hsieh is clearly more at the beginning phases, and in some respects working in a less ossified, less clearly formed environment.  But there will be a cry out here for broader help – so much vacancy, so little educational attainment, etc.  It already appears to be happening around broader downtown things – the water fountain story being a key example.  At least that part of the community has moved to that phase pretty fast.    What happens when he gets dragged into a citywide initiative?

His little bet, light-touch, community-led and community-enabling strategy might work.  It will probably not look real glossy, but it might work.

Physical Spaces

The treatment of physical spaces is fascinating to me.  All kinds of space treatments, from the offices to the Container Park, generally treated very flexibly, temporary, inexpensively.  There is an implied expectation of flux.  Emphasis seems to be on use and repurposing of temporary spaces – intentional design and construction of Container Park, description of how space is allocated for the Tech Fund businesses, Use and relatively minimal changes to buildings with a different past.  The Gold Spike is fascinating on that point.  It’s cleaned up, but it hasn’t been massively reworked. They didn’t even take down the “Casino” part of the sign, even though there’s no casino activity anymore.  I don’t know if that’s coming from a preservation ethic – I think it’s a very pragmatic, tactical approach to using what’s available, what you can get your hands on and rework quickly.  Remnants of the past remain because there’s no compelling reason to remove them, I guess.

Part of the reason this is happening in Vegas is probably because you can do it so damn cheap.  And cheap, adapted, small, flexible…

Is it because it’s cheap, or because it can be done quickly?

Is the Ogden, Container Park, Gold Spike etc. more about the time value of showing progress, rather than making showplaces?  $350 Mil could build a pretty decent-looking building….

Is rough around the edges, adapted, temporary, small… about facilitating innovation, about not allowing things to get stuck in stone? About maintaining the ability to shift?

Temporary in this context doesn’t mean short-lived.  It means stepping stone.

Pragmatically, I think the provision of little spaces is more critical.  My guess is that the “small” spaces in Ogden are a lot bigger than the ArtBOX half a container.  But that tiny little space, allowing 31 (!) artists to make at least part of a living…that’s a huge impact.  And the fact that they had nowhere else to sell before indicates what a game-changer that is.

Perhaps this is the challenge to city planners: the space isn’t in itself the thing that matters.  The think that matters is how the space enables the people.  Dammit, I’m spouting PPS’s line again.  🙂

In both planning and ED, physical building becomes less and less important (and this at a time when we have so massively overbuilt…).  Flexibility becomes even more so.  And connecting people, enabling collisions, building intellectual capacity seems to become most.  Maybe that’s the real paradigm shift.

Relationship to Vegas reputation/cachet

The placement of this connection/collision-focused model in the context of a place whose reputation is built around the relatively anonymous good time…that’s an interesting contrast.  Impact of Gold Spike –even before I knew that it was actually owned by the Downtown Project, I noticed pretty quickly that it’s the only public space around without slot machines.  Note that D said that the reason isn’t anything against gambling, it’s a desire to preference conversation and interaction.  Which is interesting given that this is a generation for whom video gaming is a fact of life (and Dave thought Caesars reminded him more of Dave & Busters than anything else…or maybe I said that…).  But I’ve also noted with my kids that a large part of video gaming is an intensely social activity.    That’s a sea change, probably even from when we were kids, and it may explain the lack of interest in slot machines.

Do the tech people even play the in person games, or does the social structure frown on that?  Do you lose “Trust points” if someone sees you in a casino?  Keep in mind that a lot of these people are living on Tech Fund money, and that would be seen as frivolous and certainly wasteful or irresponsible. At what point do people start realizing how much potential energy, funding etc. the whole gaming entertainment thing siphons away.  Probably not because right now they are using this environment’s underused resources but drawing markets and talent from other places.


My Other Assorted Rambling Observations

Part of the challenge here is that the folks most closely associated with the Downtown Project are all newcomers.  That may be less of an issue overall in a western city, which has had so many newcomers over the past few years (in an eastern city it would have probably been hard to get this level of traction at all in the face of the often inherent distrust of outsiders).  But one of the other trends that I have been noticing in Vegas is that there is at least a subsection of the community (largely outside of DTLV) that is clearly thinking a lot more and a lot harder about the city’s history, its heritage, its meaning and their relationship to it, than probably would have been the case 30 years ago.  The guy I met at the Mormon Fort site who was telling about how they would come to that hill from the city as a kid… I bet there were few people who were at the age to reminisce like that and had been in the city long enough to have that length of memory 20 or 30 years ago.  Post-2008 Vegas seems to have a much different relationship to its past, more of a sense of self-identity based on its heritage.  So perhaps the city as a whole is starting to develop that characteristic of older cities that we see in lots of eastern revitalization efforts: people who have a long-time stake in the place, who do not relate to change easily because they have internalized something of the place that you’re proposing to change.  God knows that’s a tough challenge… and probably more so in a place where the very act of claiming that heritage, instead of acting sheepish about it or imploding it, has to still feel unfamiliar.

The conventional media is clearly still trying to fit this into the conventional Great Man/Big Money storyline.  And that’s really getting under my skin because there’s clearly so much more going on here.  The tech money is definitely a driver, but it’s a feeder, not leader. There is something profoundly different in how this is being organized, led (or not led), managed, than the kinds of downtown initiatives I have seen over and over again.  I found this insight from a Tech Fund entrepreneur pretty revelatory: the Tech funds select projects based on peer assessment of compatibility.  Firms being considered spend time with others who are already in the system so that its peers can determine whether the potential founder is “compatible.”  For the Tech Fund, that is putting a lot of faith in the feedback of people to whom your ties, at least conventionally, are relatively tenuous (of course they are getting funding from you…but a fund like this does not imply a long-term relationship.  It’s not like the conventional employee relationship).  What is the benefit to the tech fund members?  They clearly take this job seriously – it’s part of the value of the environment and the collisions, I guess.


What the hell are they trying to do here anyways? Build a tech-talent-attracting magnet?  Test out the business organization ideas on building a community?


It seems like there is some synergy developing between the creatives and the tech folks, and that’s probably not surprising.  Ticketcake would be most tied into that of the startups, but Life is Beautiful and etc. are probably part of that too.  LIB isn’t directly connected but clearly allied.  And both tech and artists are all kind of startups, so there is probably at least some sense of kindred spirits.

I think the story from the Tech Fund veteran contains an important kernel of wisdom: he referenced the need for a champion — someone who makes you feel like it’s possible, reinforces, encourages, promises to have your back as you go out and try something.  But then you realize that you didn’t really need that support, that you can do it yourself.  That’s potentially very powerful.  It’s almost an inversion of how we have conventionally handled city leadership and community revitalization.

Is there any connection between this and the educational systems yet?  What potential is there to start growing local talent — especially when so much of the talent that is there holds, in some sense, to the idea of being from a Place so lightly?  They are all from Somewhere Else, and they seem to take the ability to move easily from one town to another for granted.  Is the community they are building among themselves enough to keep them here if something falls down?

Important parts:

Building trust in members -holacracy model

Highly flexible strategy

Catalyst, rather than seed funding (or do-it-all funding)

Small flexible modular scalable spaces

Temporary as stepping stone


Role of leader-encourage enabler.  A little wizard behind the curtain (Oz) in the good way.  You could do it all along

Conscious building of cultural norms

Culture of organization as a niche

Pragmatic approach to using what’s available-money and time.  Existing allows fast adaptation.  Avoid getting stuck.



Flash sale at Lulu: 20% off print versions of The Local Economy Revolution until March 10

Just (and I mean just) got a note from Lulu.com, the provider of print versions of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Helpthat they are having a “Flash Sale” from now through 11:00 PM EDT  Monday, March 10.  Which means that you can get that copy of The Local Economy Revolution for a lot less than you were planning on.

Just type in promotional code SUPER20 when you check out.

As a reminder, you can also buy the book for the Kindle e-reader — either on a Kindle device or a free Kindle e-reader app for phone or tablet or computer.

Have a good weekend!  And read stuff that feeds your head and your heart.


Well, at least kind of shiny: Brilliant Economic Development panel at IEDC Leadership

About a month ago I sat on a panel with a collection of leading economic development people from all over the country as Anatalio Ubalde, CEO of GISPlanning, threw hard questions at us in front of an audience of our peers.  This little pressure cooker happened at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Irvine, California.  And it was one of those situations where you walk into it worrying about how you’re going to come off, but you walk out of it realizing how privileged you were to get to hear and talk to the amazing people sitting beside you.

IEDC’s publication, ED Now, did a brief write up on the session (and knowing GISPlanning and their fondness for videotaping, I’m sure footage will emerge eventually).  One of the neatest things about the conversation was that we were able to take on the reframing of economic development work — as a key contributor to a community’s resilience and strength, part of the mix with urban planning and housing and all of the other elements of community management that we have too long treated as Someone Else’s Job.  What I myself said on that topic apparently resonated, and not just inside my head, because that’s what Louise Story of IEDC picked up on in her article:

Building resiliency and community

Echoing a broader conversation currently taking place, the first audience question for the panel was about the growth in income inequality. Della Rucker, principal of the Wise Economy Workshop in Cincinnati, pointed to practical reasons why economic developers should focus on this issue.

“More and more, our viability as an economy depends on our viability as a community,” said Rucker. “Economic development cannot exist in a silo, planning cannot exist in a silo. It’s really all about making communities as functional, as vibrant, as resilient as possible. Addressing disparities of all types becomes an essential element of that, even if just from a self-interest standpoint.”

Thanks again to Anatalio for his ongoing kindness to me and the Wise Economy work, to GISPlanning and IEDC for being willing to push this conversation forward, and to the other amazing people who sat on the panel for enlightening and energizing me.

Selections From new Book: Why This Work Matters

I’m so, so delighted to be able to start sharing with you a few selections from the upcoming Wise Fool Press book, Why This Work Matters.  This book contains 11 essays from community professionals from all over the country, telling us in their own heartfelt words how they maintain the courage and the determination to do the work they do… and how they keep at it when things go badly.

This selection is from a consummate downtown professional, Jennifer Kime of Downtown Mansfield, Ohio.  I asked Jennifer to contribute because I knew she would write something amazing and beautiful.  And she did.

Why this Work Matters will be launching soon.  In the meantime, keep it tuned here for more updates on the book and a few more selections from some of the essays.

Thanks.  Here’s Jen:

If I made widgets, I could tell you exactly what my production has been in the last six months; including profit margins and every economic indicator you could ask for. But economic development and building community is a messy job.  The victories are slow, and most often don’t occur for years.  There are no grand award ceremonies for us, rewarding us for the best sense of community created.  The value of the work is in the giving, and the reward is creating community pride.

I was raised at the mall. Seriously. My mom would drop me off with my friends and we would hang out all day at Little Caesars, the record shop and the Limited.  Those stores were our gathering place.

I’d hear stories, though, of a community where my parents grew up. A place that was authentic and safe, where children would walk to school and stop at the shops on the way home.  The business owners were friends and family and even neighbors.

That didn’t make much sense to me.  No one knew who owned or even managed the Little Caesars, even though I spent an embarrassingly large portion of my time there.  We were friends with the breadstick boy, but that was just good sense.

It took a move to Chicago, where I managed a flower shop in the Printer’s Row neighborhood, to really understand community.  The business owners were friendly, the restaurant managers knew each other, and they all knew I was “from the neighborhood.”

If I’m being honest, it was kind of uncomfortable at first.  I wasn’t from Chicago and I didn’t even know these people.  But the owner of the deli knew that I loved the Italian sub, no onion, and we all knew that the coffee shop barrista was moving to London and we sent her flowers.

Mansfield’s downtown was well on its way to revitalization before I came around, but I plugged myself in — with overconfidence in my education and travels and self-assured problem solving skills.  I applied the equations and formulas that I had learned and observed.  Progress was made and I was feeling pretty good those first couple of years.  Our achievements were measurable and I kept a running tally to show exactly what had been accomplished.

That’s where it gets messy.….

How people feel about a place goes in cycles.  a community’s pride or self deprecation can be charted, I’m sure of it.  

Here’s how that cycle goes.  First, something changes and everyone feels good.  A unique new business opens and the community wraps around it and takes a little piece of it as their own source of pride.  But a month later, when an older business closes, the public begins the rhetoric: “

Someone needs to do Something about this town…”  

That continues for a while, until the next big event where thousands gather and the moms and kids chat endlessly about how fun it was to be downtown. Pride is temporarily restored….

When I got into this work, I didn’t know how messy it would be.  Especially coming from finance where there is a right, a wrong and an end to each column.

But I did come to the work with a vision that I continue to hold all these years later.  It’s not a particularly specific vision, it’s not complete and it’s not particularly pretty either. My vision of where we are going doesn’t look like a new outdoor mall, or the past, or even what I’ve seen in other communities.

My vision looks like a unique place where people who live in the community feel a bit of ownership.  That’s the difference that I see most strikingly between communities that are dying and communities that are fighting this great revitalization challenge.  The key element is developing ownership, and it’s best measured by listening to people talk about a place.

It’s the stark difference between, “they need to do something about that park” and “have you been to our new coffee shop?” And that’s my single most motivating factor in the work I do…..

Making a difference in a community is really about building ownership.  My most valuable work is not only in re-creating ownership where it has been lost, but also growing it in the younger generations.  When I see children wanting to be here, I get a sense of relief:

Someday they won’t have to worry about “someone to fix things” because they will be fixing them themselves.  Then, perhaps, I can go back to finance, or maybe I’ll finally make some widgets…



What the Berlin Wall Taught Me

My dear and admired friend, Jason Segedy, ran a lovely post on his blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com the other day.  It does a beautiful job of tracing out how our assumptions about the future can so readily turn out wrong — and why the fact that they so often turn out wrong means that we never have an real excuse to say that thing we often say:

It is what it is.  It (our politics, our leadership, our lack of money, fill in the blank) will never change.  

After all, we all thought the Soviet Union was invincible.  Until 1991.  As Jason says, Who knew?

So who knows whether your  tough challenge will last or change?

Maybe you do, after all.

Here’s Jason:


Meine Reise nach Berlin

In 1987, when I was 14 years old, I went to Germany.  It was the first time that I had ever been outside of North America.  And it was the first (and only) time that I had been behind the Iron Curtain.


Twenty-seven years ago, this March, I crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and visited Soviet-occupied East Berlin.  Twenty-six years before that, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed.  The wall separated the totalitarian east from the democratic west.  It separated friends and colleagues from one another, divided families, and served as a major flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.


It was easy to see what the West Berliners thought of the wall – every square inch was covered with (mostly political) graffiti.  The side that faced East Berlin, however, was virgin concrete, unsullied by graffiti.  It bore mute testimony to the voiceless East Berliners that had been silenced by their own government, the German “Democratic” Republic (a.k.a. East Germany).

Berlin wall
West Germany side of the Berlin Wall (there were actually two walls a few hundred feet apart). From thestile1972.tumblr.com


When we crossed into East Berlin, it was like crossing from a color world into a black and white one.  West Berlin was like New York, with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure.

Crossing over into East Berlin, you could actually feel the oppression.  Some areas of East Berlin were still bombed out from World War II, and piles of rotting lumber sat unused at vacant construction sites, where it looked like nothing had happened for decades.  There were far fewer people on the streets, and far fewer shops and stores.  It was a city full of drab blocks of apartments, with a few communist monuments thrown in for good measure.


In the west, people smiled, and would make eye contact with you.  The place was lousy with advertisements, neon signs, and street level kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks, newspapers, and lots of pornography.  Late-model Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes filled the streets, and edgy electronic music emanated from the ubiquitous discotheques, seemingly located on every block.  In the east, no one really made eye contact.  The streets were largely silent, and looked empty by comparison. The cars that we saw were these little two-cylinder numbers that looked like you could kick them apart.  It looked depressed, and felt depressing.  It was a place without hope.


I wish that I could go back and do that trip over again.  Although I was pretty mature and well-behaved (for a 14 year old), there are so many more things that I would have noticed and appreciated as an adult. On the other hand, seeing the Cold War up-close-and-personal, as a 14 year old, offers a valuable perspective, too.


Growing up, I honestly believed that there was a decent chance that I would be vaporized by a Soviet ICBM.  Like a lot of other kids in the 1980s, I put my odds at surviving until adulthood at around 50/50.


Here in the present-day, it is all-too-easy to forget that we went to bed every night knowing that a global thermonuclear war was a horrifyingly real possibility.  Millions of people in Berlin were forcibly separated by a wall that served as a constant reminder of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of an additional billion people, like myself, living throughout North America, Europe, and the U.S.S.R.


I became an adult in 1990.  The Cold War ended the very next year.  Who knew?


Twenty-seven years after my visit, it is starting to hit home that my trip to Berlin actually is a “historical” event, just like World War II was when I visited.  Time is a funny thing.


The Scourge of Fatalism


So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?”

No one did, of course.  Not, for sure, anyway.

We never know.

So why is it that we so often pretend like we do?  Why do we default to a fatalistic, you’ll-never-change-it, assumption about what the future holds?

Fatalism is to the 2010s what irony was to the 1990s – a defense mechanism that we employ to avoid confronting the crushing reality of free human choice.

Fatalism might be the single biggest thing that holds us back as a culture.  We forget that what we do here, in the present, controls what happens in the future.

It is the collective sum of the untold billions of human choices, great and small, that each of us make each and every day, which (excepting what is truly beyond our control – accident, natural disaster, disease, and death) are directly responsible for every ounce of misery and suffering on this planet.

We have met the enemy and he is us.


On the other hand, we collectively have the power and the capacity to make our world into a virtual paradise.


But what can we really do?  We are just individuals.  What can any of us, even the most virtuous or noble among us, really change in the end?  We are, each one of us, simply one of a billion of grains of sand on a desolate beach.  How can we be expected to make a difference?


So, instead, we resort to fatalism.  We assert, and assume, that we can’t.  It makes the conundrum of free human choice a lot easier to deal with, and it assuages the feeling of helplessness that come with the recognition of our individuality and our dependence upon others.  It’s a cold comfort, that some may argue is better than nothing.


But, the thing is, taking the cold comfort doesn’t help us.   In fact, it makes our situation even worse.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


See, if we know that the future is going to be such-and-such, there’s really no point in trying to change it.


Sound familiar?


How about these:


We know that people of different races are just never going to get along.  People are people.


We know that there is no way that we are going to be able to produce the energy that we need, and protect the environment at the same time.  We’re powerless to change it.


We know that, no matter what we do, we are never going to be able to provide enough health care, food, or shelter for those that need it.  So why bother trying?


We know that Americans love their cars and their big houses, and there is no point trying to promote alternatives to driving, or to urban sprawl.  That’s just the way it is.


But, see, the thing is, we don’t really know any of these things.  Take a look at history.  Most of our prophecies about the future have been wrong.  And most of the prophecies that were not, were of the self-fulfilling variety.


Some of the people in Warsaw, in May 1942, were undoubtedly just as sure as the Nazis were, that the German Reich would last for a thousand years.


By May 1945, the Reich was gone.


Some of the people in Berlin, in March 1987, were sure that the Cold War would never end, and that the Wall would never come down.


By November 1989, the Wall was gone.


Some of the people in Northeast Ohio, in 2014, are sure that we are destined to remain the “Rust Belt” from here to eternity.


We’re not.

My trip to Berlin in 1987 was a reminder to never give up hope, even when things seem dark.

History is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  It is whatever we choose to make it.


There will be new Berlin Walls in the future, and there will also be new people to tear them down.




Don’t believe it for a second.  Reject it, and choose your future.  What you choose to do today matters.


Live it out.

Leverage Your Community: Interview on public engagement & economic development on Regional Business Talk

Regional Business Talk just posted an interview that I did with Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America a few weeks ago — you can read the summary and listen to or download the interview here.

As the wunderkinds behind the site wrote,

Ed and Della also discuss the importance of creating meaningful public engagement to support economic development strategies.  Della is not a fan of traditional public meetings and offers her thoughts on a more effective and efficient way to engage your community.

This interview provides you with a practical understanding of how to leverage the thinking and support of your community to achieve sustainable economic prosperity.

Interestingly, this was the second interview I’ve done focusing on the why and how of doing better, more meaningful  — and less destructive — public engagement around economic development(the first one was with my friends at Podcatalyst).  It’s a topic that I haven’t heard many people  in the economic development  world talk about, but people are clearly starting to realize how important that is.

I’m currently in the early stages of an upcoming Wise Fool Press publication that will give some specific tools for doing that, and I’m doing my second and third runs on a training about that topic this spring.  More as we get it done!


Super special offer: Free shipping on Local Economy Revolution (act fast!)

I just received this note from the printer who produces the hard copy version of The Local Economy Revolution –apparently, the groundhog saw his shadow yesterday morning and Lulu is  feeling as lousy as the rest of us about this winter dragging on….

As we all hunker down, Lulu wanted to share the warmth with free mail shipping on all orders for the next three days with code 6MOREWEEKS. But hurry! This offer ends February 5th at Midnight.

So, you’ve been warned.  Since you can’t exactly pick this thing up at the airport, it’s a good chance to get your hands on your very own copy.  Just click this link (c’mon…you know you want to!)


The importance of ‘City Building”

I’m delighted to be able to share a new voice with you — from one of the most impressive young community professionals and writers I have met in recent years.

In his earlier days, Patrick Whalen shadowed me, interned for me, and co-wrote a white paper on planning public engagement tools with me… and apparently that didn’t damage him to badly, because he is now gainfully employed helping urban neighborhoods in Cincinnati find the best new economic opportunities for their buildings and places.  He’s an independent and articulate thinker, and I’m so glad to be able to help him find and share his voice.

I particularly liked this piece because I thought it laid out an important premise for both planners and economic development types: the potential difference in economic impact generated by investing public funds in a place, versus investing them in a specific building or business.  It’s an early step in an idea that I think we all need to explore more, and I hope Patrick and others who know their real estate stuff better than I do…will.

I’ll be sure to share your feedback, so make sure you give comments below.  And I’ll look forward to Patrick’s next installation.


It’s no secret that it’s harder to get urban development done in America than suburban or greenfield development.  Land costs are usually higher, environmental contamination often plagues sites, parking presents greater challenges (with costly solutions), and lenders have been hesitant to invest in urban areas.


As a result of these challenges, city governments have had to take efforts to sidestep market deficiencies, to ensure that development happens.  Too often, these efforts focus on providing incentives or gap financing for specific development projects.  Usually promising to be “transformative” or the first seed in the spread of additional development, these projects represent visible, tangible signs of progress —  thus very appealing to city officials.


But throwing money at individual developments, no matter how great the design or supposed lasting benefits, generally does little to change the underlying economic situation that creates the “need” for government subsidy.


The general claim from developers in “risky” markets, i.e. unproven, under-developed areas, is that they need a variety of incentives and city money to justify their investment, and to make a profit.  Even in residential market segments that have demonstrated high demand and low supply, (like most downtown rental environments across the US), developers still ask for money.  They have become accustomed to receiving subsidies, so from their perspective, why shouldn’t they  ask?But in an age of diminishing city budgets, this project-based method of pursuing economic development is inherently unsustainable.

The primary goal of municipal economic development should be to leverage public investment to spur additional private investment.  The justification for subsidizing individual projects is usually framed in this way, and indeed in these situations the public investment does yield private investment.  Municipal economic development directors can claim they turned a $5 million investment into a $50 million condo tower.  Sounds like an easy decision, right?


But this is a poor method for spurring development.  A developer has to know that the basic market conditions are already in place before they will take on an urban development risk, even if that risk has some padding on it thanks to the City.  The developer and lenders have to be fairly certain that the building will be occupied, and that they can charge the desired amount of money for it. It has to make at least basic economic sense.  The subsidy that closes the gap between what the developer can charge and what the developer has to spend will not turn a project that cannot make money into one that can.  It can’t fix the local real estate market  if that market doesn’t offer anything that people want.

A better tactic for increasing private investment in our cities is to invest in things that shift the economic reality of the city – to invest in city buildingCity building can take the form of a park, transit, streetscape enhancement project, or really anything that creates an increase in the value of proximate land.  City building changes the economics of more than just one project.  It changes the economics of  everything around it.


A familiar but  excellent example of city building in action is the High Line in New York City.  Using an abandoned elevated rail line in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the High Line has transformed a former source of

New York High Line
from wikimedia.org

blight into a roughly three-mile elevated park.  In space-starved Manhattan, open space is highly desired, and the creative reuse of the line has been received extremely well.  The park is constantly slammed with locals and tourists alike, and it is currently undergoing its second expansion since opening in 2009.


But what is most noteworthy about the High Line from an economic development perspective is the massive construction boom happening around the park.  New high rises are under varying stages of development all along the park, with many of them directly advertising their High Line adjacent location.  In an area that was relatively under developed (for Manhattan standards), the High Line has infused value and provided an amenity that people want to be near.


Had the city chosen to invest in an apartment tower, there would be a single node, just one spot with new activity in the area.  Instead, because of  investing in a park, the entire length of the High Line has become a source of liveliness and activity  — one that developers are clamoring to build around.  The park increases demand for living, shopping, and working in the area, and as a result, developers can charge higher rents for their spaces, which allows the pro-forma to be more easily balanced without (perhaps as much) city assistance.


Another form of city building investment is transit.  Fixed rail transit has been shown to increase property and land values where it is built.  The positive influence of rail transit on areas within a half or quarter mile of a station has been recorded time and time again:


  • Portland, OR: 10.6% increase in property values for homes within ¼ of a mile from a light rail station.
  • Chicago, IL: Proximity to CTA ‘El’ and Metra commuter rail stations increased property values of single family homes by 20%.
  • Dallas, TX: In a study from 1997-2001, median values for residential property increased 32.1% near light rail stations, compared to just 19.5% in control study areas.


As a relatively clean and quiet form of transit, rail provides an amenity for mobility and access.  As the studies above indicate, rail transit access can translate into residential premiums, but its effect is similarly felt for commercial and office uses as well:

  • Dallas, TX: The same study as noted previously also showed an increase in property values for office buildings near transit.  Land values increased 24.7% near rail stations, compared to only 11.5% for control study areas.
  • New York, NY: “On average, commercial property values increased by $2.7 per square foot for every meter closer to a transit station.”


Because of the varying tax structures of municipalities, having a healthy balance of residential, industrial, and commercial space is critically important.  City building projects such as rail transit help to strengthen each of these sectors, and in doing so, helps to strengthen the overall health of the city.  Transit focuses development around stations and works to create a dense nodes of critical mass along routes.  This approach creates a center for which redevelopment can spring forth.


Underwriting an individual project can almost never make such a claim.


It’s time for our cities to get smarter about economic development.  We have to build our cities up so that urban development doesn’t have to function in spite of the market, but happens because of it.  Funding individual projects is akin to putting band-aids over the wounds of market failure; city building helps to stitch up the wounds, so the market can function as it is supposed to.  Obviously a combination of the two interventions is necessary, but for the long term health of our cities,  the priorities are clear:

  • Equip our cities with the tools that enable them to be competitive.
  • Differentiate urban neighborhoods from their suburban counterparts.
  • Focus on the assets that are inherent (or theoretically should be inherent) in the urban landscape, and find ways to capitalize on them.


These are the most effective ways to re-create the market and stimulate competition in our urban areas.

New Learning from Las Vegas: Fight, Survive and Thrive

I’m not supposed to like Las Vegas.

I have a planning degree, after all, and Las Vegas is typically described in planning talk as the anti-planned, environmentally unsustainable train wreck waiting to happen.  It’s the story that smart growth planners pull out when they want to describe everything that was done wrong in the 20th century, and how it’s all going to come home to roost in just a matter of time.

I’m also a historic preservation type, and of course Vegas is the place that blows up what little history it has for show- the show of the explosion and the show of the even more ostentatious something that replaces the garish past.

Hell, I don’t even like to gamble.

And yet I am falling in love with Las Vegas.

Las Vegas might be the place that teaches the rest of us how to thrive in a decentralized, messy, entrepreneur, do-it-yourself-with-what-you’ve-got-to-work-with economy.  I’m visiting with some of the folks who are working on Downtown Las Vegas later this week and next, and I’m hoping to learn a lot – to begin with, what the heck is actually going on, since it’s a whole lot more complicated than the tech-hero-saves-the-day story that most of the mainstream media has been telling.  The real story is clearly much more robust, and a lot more tangled.

And for those very reasons, potentially more relevant to the rest of us who give a damn about our communities than any Tech Hero Spending Money would be.



“Of course, a vacation city must be defiant of death, a desert city like Las Vegas doubly so, for it is a city built upon a desolate landscape….

The theme of Elvis’s show that night was the theme of Las Vegas (the gambler’s prayer) – resurrection.

–Richard Rodriguez, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography


From a distance, Las Vegas gives me a sense of a place that continues to fight for relevance, for survival, even when the experts, and sometime logic, seem to say it should not.

I know all the reasons why Las Vegas should not be.  You don’t have to look hard to catch the water issues, the lawns and golf courses in a place with almost no rain, the receding water levels in Lake Mead.

Lake Mead
Lake Mead at Hoover Dam. White ring indicates declining water level. Wikipedia.org

My colleagues with urban design cred sneer at the derivative fantasies, the impossible geegaws , the sequined buildings, the cheese.  My dear friends who fight for the survival of towns in the Rust Belt stick pins in secret voodoo dolls of the parallelogram sign, muttering quiet encouragement to themselves that one day, one day, the water out there will run out and all those people will come rushing back to us, begging our forgiveness for running away years ago.  Just a matter of time…you’ll see.

The overlooked high school geek hangs on to the hope that the gorgeous cheerleader turns out to be a horrible person, just like in the movies.

Richard Florida, writing in the wake of the Great Recession, when Vegas was first coming to grips with what happens when your own version of the steel mills go out, described Las Vegas with less sympathy, and with less sense of a potential for redemption, that any of the other places he examined.  Detroit, New Orleans  –hard times places all– gave Florida reason for hope.  He could see, could infer, a profitable future, a unique national economic role, a raison d’etre, for each one.

But for Vegas, poster child of the Sun Belt mortgage collapse, Florida seemed to struggle to find hope.  The best he managed was to identify an opportunity to expand the city’s role in the meeting and convention industry.  Despite the fact that convention attendance nationally has been dropping for a decade.  Hardly a transformative opportunity.

But put all that against the determination, the entrepreneurship, the multi-faceted, incremental efforts unfolding downtown and all over Las Vegas today.  As a distant observer, I can’t help but grow aware of a conscious

Container park shop.  From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com
Container park shop. From Local Motors, www.localmotors.com

choice on the part of some people – who, I don’t exactly know other than a few names – who choose to love the place in spite of, in the face of, maybe because of (?) its flaws.

There’s an undercurrent of struggle in Las Vegas that underlies the glamor, and that gives the place an integrity of sorts that you don’t imagine if your don’t look past the usual tourist spots.  A trip off the Strip leads you to neighborhoods that look like any other place you have been.  The huge roads, the franchise signs, the driveways, the street lights…Not too surprising.

But look closer, and you notice how the desert takes over the vacant lots, gives them an austerity that you don’t see back east.  The business signs in dozens of languages, offering services familiar (auto repair, fried chicken) and not so familiar but clearly pedestrian here (security, costumes, slot machine repair).  And the neighborhoods of modest houses, and the churches.  Churches in some places as dense and variegated as the most tangled clump of ethnic neighborhoods in any old steel-making town.  It’s just that the architecture isn’t the same.

If I weren’t from a rusty place, a beat-up place myself, I might find it hard to understand how people can choose to call such a place their home.  But hundreds of thousands do.

And because I have loved places that crumble and break and fight against the urge to give up in the face of their own crumbling and breaking, maybe I start to understand why this place matters.

When you come to a place like Las Vegas from the towns where the dust of the last economy still hangs in the air, from places that are used to being disappointed by promised magic solutions that failed to deliver, and you look past the Las Vegas flash, what do you see?

What I think I see, maybe under the Liberace costume, maybe when I look to the side of it, is my own town’s younger brother  —  the place, like mine, that fights and continues to fight for its piece of relevancy, its market niche, its old-fashioned place in the sun.  Its relevance, and its survival.

A survival that isn’t assured.  But a survival for which it is deeply rooted in our nature to seek.

I won’t root for Las Vegas’ s demise.  I want Las Vegas to succeed.  I want those new tech wizards and small business owners in the Container Park and the Stitch Factory, and the hospitality-wage families and revue dancers and waitresses and old-line casino owners, to make the place theirs–uniquely theirs, maybe cheesily theirs, maybe goofily theirs, but theirs.

interior sewing factory
The Stitch Factory. From www.localmotors.com

Theirs in a way that will be unlike my place, because that is what they have become, in all its complexity and all its deep challenge.

So, to my friends in Las Vegas: please do sell your tickets to your neon sign graveyard and the Mob Museum.  Memorialize places where Sammy Davis played and give people a chance to get married by an Elvis impersonator.

But more importantly, perhaps: build your Container Park and hold your downtown cornhole nights and by all means bring your Huntridge Theater back to life.

Do it, all of it, in the way that is authentic to you, that matters to you and who you are.  If the intellectuals sneer and the architecture critics deride, who cares?

You are who you are.  That’s as valuable, as unique, and by now as real, as any steel mill city’s grit or New England village’s town square.  It’s you – in all complexity and contradiction and shortcomings, it’s you.

So don’t give up.  Don’t hide your face at what you have meant, good or ill, to generations.  By all means grow, diversify, build, reach, change.

The rest of us need to know that you are out there in the desert, in an environment the rest of us can’t understand, somehow making it work.


Wise Fool Press Update: Why This Work Matters entering production

Just wanted to let you know that the next publication from the Wise Fool Press is in the work, and should be rolling out to you by around this time next month.

This book is a big departure from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  For one thing, I’m not the author of most of it.  Why This Work Matters features essays from ten dedicated professionals who are trying to make their communities better.  Some are planners, some economic developers, administrators, downtown managers, and more.   They work for tiny nonprofits and federal agencies, they deal in transportation, grant administration and trying to keep buildings from falling down…you name it, we probably got it.

Two things unite these authors.  First, of course, their commitment to their work.  Second, their willingness to share with us from the depth of their experience — their personal motivations, their frustrations, their heartbreaks, and where they find the guts and determination to keep going.

These aren’t motivational speakers or favored talking heads.  These are real people who are doing the work that you do.   My hope for this book is that is will give us all a source of encouragement — a touchstone for remembering that we’re not the only ones who sometimes feel like giving up, and the voices and stories of people who have been in our shoes as we feel them sinking into the mud.

I knew this would be a good project, but I had no idea it would be as emotionally moving as it has been, simply reading through the first drafts and talking to the authors about their experiences.  It’s been a deep honor to compile and edit this collection, and I can’t wait to share it with you.  So stay tuned… more to come.

From Cincinnati’s own Soapbox: Launching the Resilience Revolution

After years and years of reading Soapbox, the excellent online magazine from Issue Media Group, I was delighted to be invited to write a feature article about how the lessons of The Local Economy Revolution can be applied to Cincinnati.  The timing couldn’t be better, either — Cincinnati is on the verge of hiring a new city manager and a new economic development director.  And at the same time, a string of great urban revitalization successes means that enthusiasm around Cincinnati’s assets and potential has never been higher.

My charge in this essay was to outline a high-level directive for where the city’s economic development should focus, and I built most of the piece around the concept of resilience — and the role that Cincinnati’s dozens of neighborhood “downtowns” and hundreds of small businesses can play in building the city’s ability to bounce back.  It’s a strategy that emphasizes the city’s incredible existing assets assets and the power of massively broad-spread mini-revolutions.  But as I noted at the end, it takes the willpower of a city’s leaders and its residents to allow a sea change like this to happen.

Take a look, and check out other Soapbox and Issue Media work while you’re at it.  They do good stuff.

garden with city in background


Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening.

It’s been just over a year since the New York Times ran its series on economic development incentives — the one that shone a truthful but uncomfortable light on the lack of transparency, analysis and evaluation that has plagued many incentive programs.  Since then, there has been much hand-wringing, some debate, a few cases of increasingly targeted state and local scrutiny, and some localized progress toward improved information and accountability. But its been, at best, a mixed bag.

One of the best-informed observers of this issue, Ellen Harpel of Smart Incentives, noted recently that she saw three trends in 2013:

  • The total number of new facilities and expansions nationally is a fraction of what is was just a few years ago, but the average amount of money involved in the deals that do attract incentives has skyrocketed.
  • State subsidies overall have become more transparent, but that’s not the case with most local governments.
  • Fewer incentive programs are targeting incentives according to policy priorities, such as improving needy areas or improving energy efficiency.

One guardedly optimistic item, one squirm-worthy, and one that even the most diehard incentive supporter would have to admit presents big cause for concern.

Even more disturbing to me, though, is that we who deal in economic development — and who understand better than anyone else the impact that a well-designed incentive can have on facilitating economic change — appear to be continuing to lose our relevance to, our role in, the incentives debate.  Just a couple of weeks ago, one of the largest economic development service providers ran a blog entry recapping their sense of the year’s trends – including the fact that, after an initial flurry of attention, “this story did not seem to grow legs, and the issue went away.”

Hate to break the news, guys:

The issue didn’t go away. A lot of us have gotten an earful, including people who have spent a lot of time in legislative hearings and program re-evaluations and squirming uneasily under sharp questions from reporters and citizens at public meetings.  And more importantly, others have been talking about it.  Ask your city manager.

What hasn’t happened?  We haven’t fixed it.  Except in some corners of the profession, we haven’t even had a cogent conversation about it.


I have been wondering in the back of my mind just what is making us so damn stubborn, so obstinately resistent to face this issue before it turns around and takes a large bite out of us.  And part of the answer came to me from a bit of a surprising source — my old friend and frequent Wise Economy contributor Pete Mallow, who turned the tables on the former English major and helped me understand the deep psychology at work in the incentives non-debate…through 19th century American literature.  Go figure.


Read what Pete wrote, and let’s figure out how we get over the whale hunt mentality before it wrecks our flimsy boat.

Landing the Whale: Why a rational debate on incentives isn’t happening


The ongoing debate regarding incentives has been an intriguing one for me.  Living in the Midwest, it seems the vast majority of incentives are used to keep a company from leaving a neighboring town or to induce a company from the neighboring town move.

Moby Dick illustration
Um, yeah. That happened.


Who can blame the companies for accepting the handouts? It is a competitive advantage to the business and the cost of doing business to the community. One egregious example that comes to mind is a retail store that accepted millions of dollars in direct subsidies to buy inventory in exchange for staying in the central business district.  They recently announced that they will be moving to the suburbs, though.


I want us to think about why our debates regarding economic development incentives continue, yet there is little discernible change in our actions and our debates over the past couple of decades.


That reason lies deep in us, but it can be found in many different stories over time — perhaps none better than a great piece of American literature.


“Call me Ishmael.”


The opening line of Moby-Dick begins a story not unlike the quest to land a large company in one’s community.  Once the whiff of a landing a massive company reaches our noses, everyone lines up speaking of the good fortunes that will come. The obsession to land/retain the company quickly becomes a single-minded pursuit to land the Whale. There will be doubters, people offering there words of wisdom from past pursuits, and others saying stick the plan. Yet, these voices are quickly drowned out. How can anyone expect a rational debate about the value of incentives when you are trying to land the Whale?


If you are reading this, you probably have found yourself caught up in that pursuit.  Maybe many times. It could be an automobile plant, a casino, a large “lifestyle” mixed-use center, or a business with hundreds of office jobs. It all boils down to obsession, which is the chase of the whale.


We, the economic development community, justify landing the whale as the one thing we need to put our community on firm ground and allow us to focus on more sustainable strategies or home grown strategies afterwards. You know, these strategies, everything we talk about in our conferences, to grow smart, buy local, and invest in the gazelle company.


Yet, the next whale is just off in the distance. Waiting…


The next whale is always visible in the distance.  It offers a panacea to all the problems facing the community. The whale will increase employment, increase all sorts of taxes, bring prestige to the community, and reelection to any number of political leaders.

These reasons fuel the obsession to grant large incentives to the whale.  Whether it be infrastructure improvements (new roads, sewer, water, etc.) or Tax Increment Financing, Industrial Revenue Bonds, payroll tax credits or abatements local communities will put forth their most competitive package and lobby their state elected officials to put forth additional incentives.


Can a politician go to his/her constituents and say, I let the company go that was going to bring/keep hundreds of jobs our community?  Can we say to our elected leaders that we let the whale get away?


Absolutely not!  When the pursuit of the whale, major employer, begins it is all consuming. The various incentives we have to offer become our harpoons to be hurled at the whale. Rational thoughts, logic, best-laid economic plans, and long-term thinking can’t compete for this most basic human emotion.


“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”—Moby Dick


As I tell my kids about every day, understanding someone’s behavior does not mean accepting it.  If we are acting like Ahab, blinded to everything except the elusive promise and the thrill of the chase, then we are going to put everything else at jeopardy.  And like Ahab, we won’t realize the mistakes we have made, and the danger that we have put ourselves and our communities in, until it’s far too late.

We’ve got tighter budgets, less money to work with.  The screws tighten every day, we face a constant demand to squeeze more services from less and less  resources, and…

We’re going to give mega-incentives?

How long, realistically, do we think we can get away with this?

How soon before the people we say we’re trying to help — the ones we say we’re “creating jobs” for — conclude that we’re nuts?

How long before Moby Dick turns into Mutiny on the Bounty

How long before that crew that we thought were following us to the bright economic future we were promising…dump us off the ship and sail home without us?

For God’s sake, let us get over this already.  Use the damn things right.  And stop wasting what little we have chasing long-shot, unproven whales.


We’re not all white males: we need more voices in planning and economic development

Last week a colleague of mine publicly took a popular professional publication to task for not having any women (and few non-white males) among their regular contributors. As the editor pointed out, they do have several who have contributed in the past, but they’ve gone quiet. Probably too busy.This morning, then, I run across an essay from one of my favorite writers, Richard Longstreth of the Midwesterner, who introduced me to insurance agent, essayist and former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Nebraska. Haunting and beautiful Midwestern -based stories, powerful in their simile and metaphor. What I am always looking for in a writer who deals in the character of a place and its people.

Except for one thing.

He’s a guy.

They’re all guys.

Let me run down the list of some of the current writers/bloggers i follow whose professional interests intersect with mine. I guess you’d call these kind of folks “thought leaders.” I’m not sure what exactly that term means–when someone calls me by that term, I’m never sure how to react. But here’s my go-to list:

Aaron Renn
Richard Longstreth
Chuck Marohn
Otis White
Richard Florida
Nicholas Talib
Philip Auerswald
Umair Hacque.

Note the first names (and for those who are unfamiliar with it, “Umair” is a common male first name in the Urdu language).

Jane Jacobs.  From Wikipedia
Jane Jacobs. From Wikipedia

We hold up Jane Jacobs as this patron saint of urbanism, as this person who re-defined what makes a place work, what makes a place matter, what makes a place worth caring about. But the reason why she did that, why she had the ability to do that, is because she came to the question of what makes a community work from a profoundly different perspective than her male contemporaries.

And a big piece of that difference, although certainly not all, was her gender. She saw, she understood, the community around her in a different and illuminating way, not just because she wasn’t trained as a planner, but-

Because she was a woman.

Claiming that the genetic fact of being female gives you some kind of inherently valuable perspective is admittedly thin ice for skating. On the one hand we assert our intrinsic equality, and on the other hand we end up claiming that we’re different. Even my two sons, raised with a mom who is about as similar to June Cleaver as a Martian, challenge me on that. But they understand, they perceived early on, that something is definitely different over on this side of the chromosome divide.

What part of that difference is genetic? Cultural? Psychological? I sure don’t know. But look at the studies of gender differences in leadership styles, communication methods, collaboration patterns, urban bicycling, perceptions of how safe an urban space is. Mentally chart the divides.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t care what the reason is or why women and other non-white male voices aren’t showing up in planning and economic development and urban thought leadership. I’m not looking for some kind of forced equity for the sake of equity.

What worries me is this: we have to figure out how to make communities work better in this generation. We have to figure out how to untangle this welter of wicked problems that we have inherited, that are robbing the communities that we care about is their life and vitality and resilience and health.

If we only have one set of voices, we’re only going to find one set of solutions. And those could turn out to be just as wrong as the urban renewal damage that Jacobs fought against.

So where are today’s Jane Jacobs’s? Who is going to join the thought leader brigade and give us more perspectives, more information, more ideas on how to make this all work?

Where are they? Are they too busy, too overwhelmed with making a living, too overextended?

Too frightened?
Too intimidated?
Too unconvinced of the value of their own voice?

I don’t know. But I know we need them. Lots more of them.

And frankly, it’s getting lonely out here.

I don’t like to complain, and I generally suck at playing the victim. So I want to ask you for two pieces of help:

1. If you know of any women or non-white males who are writing thoughtfully and insightfully about any of the issues involved with helping communities do better, please leave names, links etc in the comment box below. As much as I love all of the guys I named in that list, I think I need some new reading material.

2. I’d be very interested in your thoughts about what we can do to bring more voice into the community building discussion. You can leave them below or email to me directly, whichever your prefer.

Thank you!

Notes from the floor: using a Triple Bottom Line sustainability perspective in economic development.

Back in October, I moderated a session for the International Economic Development Council’s annual meeting that focused on a subject that is so new to economic development that… we needed five people to talk about it.  I joked that I was going to need to bring my whip and hob-nailed boots to keep them all in line, but they all behaved well. ‘ Course, it was 7:30 AM when we started, so maybe they were just still sleepy…

The session focused on the challenges and opportunities facing communities that decide to pursue a sustainable approach to economic development.  For this session, we actually defined “sustainable” more broadly than just using green energy, or recyclable materials or anything like that.  Each of the panelists was using a full-blown Triple Bottom Line approach to drive their economic development work.  For those of you for whom this is a new topic, a Triple Bottom Line approach means that they are trying to balance economic, environmental and community concerns — for example, designing programs that are at the same time profitable, environmentally sensitive and beneficial to the residents of a community, especially those who have tended to be cut out in the past.    Sounds like an impossible quest, I know.  But as each of these panelists so well articulated, it’s a matter of maintaining consciousness of the interplay of these issues, and doing the best you can in a given situation, rather than giving up if you can’t do it all perfectly.

You can hear a full audio of the session at the bottom of this page or at soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy.  Since it’s a conference session, it runs well over an hour, but I think it’s definitely worth a listen.  Insightful and illuminating stuff.  But if you don’t have time to listen, I wrote out a summary version that I’ll paste in below.

I’m hoping to continue this conversation at future economic development events, with both these speakers and with the dozens of others who could have also been on that stage.  There’s good stuff out there — I think the main challenge right now is raising our understanding of what really is possible.  Enjoy!



As I told the audience at the beginning of the session, the question of how to do economic development sustainably is a new one for this profession, at least for this organization.  Although many of us have dealt with LEED building criteria or been charged with improving urban employment or had to find answers to site selectors’ questions about the sources of water or electricity provided to a site, the economic development profession as a whole has only begun to deeply grapple with what it means to do economic development sustainably.


And as the panel’s participants noted, “sustainable” does not mean just energy efficient or constructed out of renewables. Around the world, “sustainable” development has been understood in terms of its impact on three major elements–the economy, the environment, and the communities of people impacted (often referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line“).  Honored sometimes more in the breach than the doing, a truly sustainable effort asks for the best possible balance between these three, sometimes opposing, forces.  So this was the challenge facing both our panelists and our audience.


Here’s some highlights of the discussion:

  • Several of the speakers talked about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line as a lens or filter–a shift in perspective that allowed viewers to identify new ways of doing conventional tasks, changing the approach or the strategy just enough to generate a more sustainable result.


  • Andre Pettigrew, CEO of Clean Economy Solutions and former director Office of Economic Development,City and County of Denver, emphasized that sustainable growth isn’t just about “minimizing the footprint,” but about finding new opportunities through the new markets that the worldwide shift to sustainability creates– opportunities for economic growth and for new employment..


  • Cathy Polasky, Director of Director of Economic Policy and Development for the City of Minneapolis, described the evolution in her own thinking and how her department and others have changed how they work as a result of a need to address sustainability. Starting out as “mortal enemies” fighting for a slice of the budget, Cathy’ s department learned to get their sustainability mandates inserted into other departments’ work.  But as budgets shrank, it became increasingly evident that all of the City’s departments needed to work in concert if they were going to hit all of their targets, leveraging all their projects and initiatives to hit the full range of sustainability-related goals.  As a result, all of the City’s investments became informed by Triple Bottom Line priorities, creating what Cathy called “a pragmatic coalition” that incorporated a sustainability perspective.


  • Janet Hammer, Program Director of The Initiative on Triple Bottom Line Development at Portland State University, noted that economic development does not necessarily have to mean economic growth, and that the more important question has to do with creating jobs and prosperity that support individual and community well-being.  She noted the importance of looking for interconnections and ways to seek collaboration.  Janet also cited a survey of economic development professionals, in which a high proportion of respondents identified sustainability issues as highly important to their community. But the survey respondents also noted that they didn’t have any training on that topic, that they weren’t rewarded based on their impact on sustainability issues, and that, in many communities, sustainability didn’t seem to be anyone’s particular job.


  • Mark Newberg, Managing Director of Impact Investment Strategies at 5 Stone Green Capital, described his company’s “layered impact strategy” for evaluating opportunities to fold sustainability priorities into an investment.  As he noted, “this stuff had to make sense from an economic perspective,” but he went on to demonstrate that a shift in perspective, in time frame, or in understanding of the purpose of a project can open up new approaches that can enable more sustainable building, programming and financing.  He concluded that the key challenge was to set sustainability-relevant goals for a project and then find others with similar goals, underpinned by sound economics.


  • Karl Seidman, Senior Lecturer at MIT and director of MIT CoLab’s Green Economic Development Initiative, noted that recent research on sustainable economic development identified a three-point framework for shifting an economic development organization to more sustainable approaches.  According to Karl, the first step lies within the organization itself, with bringing a sustainable perspective into its mission and priorities, since these will drive what the organization is enabled to do.  The second step requires incorporating sustainability properties into existing work, adjusting day to day operations (for example, strengthening the sustainability impact of new business recruitment by proactively sharing information about sustainable building methods and suppliers).  The third step, then, is to look beyond the economic development organization and identify broader policy and system changes needed to meet sustainability priorities more effectively–an important but particularly hard challenge for economic development organizations because they are so used to working on transactions.

I started the discussion part of the session with two basic questions.  In the first, I noted the less-than-enthusiastic reaction that one economic development professional had given me the previous night when he noted the speaker ribbon on my name tag and asked what I was going to be talking about.  How, I asked the panelists, do you get past the first reactions to the word “sustainability,” which can either mean nothing in particular, or get attached to a simplistic political agenda?


  • Mark noted that businesses often seek goals that are consistent with “sustainability,” but for reasons that have to do with their own operations, rather than an abstract environmental benefit.  Mark told the story of the development of concentrated laundry detergent: the driver for this evolution was large retailers’ desire to get more sales units out of the same unit of transportation.  By lessening the amount of water being shipped, each shipment generated more profit per truckload — and as a side effect, the manufacture of the detergent was redesigned to consume less water.


  • Cathy explained that they typically talk not in terms of sustaintability, but in terms of resilience – the ability of a business or a community to be able to withstand shocks.  Lessening energy usage in a building, she noted, makes the business less at risk of falling into financial trouble if energy prices increase.  Andre reinforced this concept by noting that discussions of sustainability get stymied when people think that they must include a particular energy source, such as solar, or else they cannot to anything to be “sustainable.”  In reality, the more important question that efforts to improve sustainability address revolve around lessening risk of negative impacts and strengthening odds for survival.


  • Janet noted that sustainable approaches are arguably more conservative, in that they tend to have the side effect of lessening risk and increasing efficiency


  • Karl also noted the potential for sustainable development to increase a business or community’s economic resilence – by lessening the amount of money that has to be spent to purchase energy, one can actually increase resilience and competitiveness by making more of the business’s funds available for other uses.


The second question I asked had to do with economic development’s tendency to emphasize the big projects. I asked the panel how a sustainability perspective influenced or impacted mega-projects.  Mark gave a straightforward piece of advice: “Look at the supply chain.”  He asserted that an asset management approach to evaluating a project often helped uncover opportunities for savings that might be overlooked otherwise.  He noted recurring line item costs, such as supplies or maintenance as a particular potential.  He noted that one can seldom attain optimal sustainability on everything, but that evaluating supply chain and recurring costs can indicate some otherwise overlooked opportunities.


The first audience question addressed one community’s struggles to address the human element of the triple bottom line ideal.  He noted that in his community, discussions about equity frequently devolved into an assumption that it was all about race, although he noted that the social aspect of sustainability actually extends to the whole community.  Andre noted the importance of resilence again — that communities need to be able to effectively leverage their whole resource set, which includes the full range of its people.


Another audience member asked about metrics, and the challenge of demonstrating the value of economic development efforts to elected officials and other stakeholders.  Mark said that different investors or supporters will need different metrics, and that it was important to work within the metrics that they were looking for and find ways to demonstrate additional benefits through the use of more sustainable choices.  From his perspective, the appropriate approach was to work within the existing expectations to show meaningful improvement.  Andre added that public discussions about sustainability have an unfortuate tendency to fall into a “jobs trap.”  Like other types of new industries and advanced manufacturing, sustainability initiatives in themselves are unlikely to generate massive numbers of new jobs in themselves, and sustainability policies that were sold as a one-shot solution to job creation were  likely to result in a failure.  Andre noted that “we need to modulate what we’re going to expect” and that equal parts of the challenge are to grow the supply of sustainable resources and to grow the demand for these products and services.


A particularly interesting question for me came from an audience member who asked where the panelists thought the IEDC’s new Sustainability Committee should  place its priorities (two of the panelists and myself sit on that committee).  Janet said that the greatest need was to forge partnerships – to connect the economic development profession more strongly to the full range of others who are trying to address sustainability issues.  Karl noted that the Urban Sustainability Directors Network was currently working on a database of sustainable economic development tools, and expressed some concern that this initiative and that one may not be connected deeply enough.

The final question that I could take during the time we had available had to do with drawing attention to sustainability initiatives.  Cathy noted that her city and others have had some success with competitions that provided a small award for energy efficiency, and Mark said that a region’s property assessment organization may be able to help quantify the benefits.  Mark also noted that a common low hanging fruit in sustainability was to use energy usage disclosure and benchmarking to encourage property managers to seek efficiency improvements.


In wrapping up the session, I noted that this session was the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation within economic development.  I also expressed my opinion that the economic development community may have a unique ability to serve as a convener around this topic, helping to bridge the gaps between the full range of partners we will need to draw on to enable sustainable economic development.



We Need Better Public Engagement in Economic Development, here’s why and how (Podcatalyst)

The good folks at Podcatalyst asked me back recently to do a second interview with them.  This time, host Clay Banks wanted to focus on one element that gets a fair amount of attention in The Local Economy Revolution: why making our local economies work better requires real, meaningful, and broad public participation, and how to do that.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, people who are trying to improve a local economy often tend to rely too much on a small group of insiders — whether staff or business leaders of some stripe.  But in an economy that is changing so quickly, what worked in the past probably has little in common with what we need for the future.  We’ve found over and over again that “Crowdsourcing Solutions,” as I call it in the book, is probably the best single strategy we have available to develop a real understanding of our challenges — and our resources.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just throw open the doors and let anyone say anything (that would be Crowdsourcing A Mess, not Crowdsourcing Solutions).

At any rate, you can listen here to the conversation on “Crowd Sourcing Wisdom From People Outside Your Box”  And don’t miss the great resources that Clay listed at the bottom of the page.

Obligatory Black Friday plug: Free shipping on book ’til Dec. 10

Just wanted to let you know that the print house producing The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help  is offering free shipping from now until December 10!

So if you need a Christmas (or slightly late Thanksgivunkah) gift for the urban planner, local economy-builder or other Person Who Gives a Damn in your life — or if you want to give your spouse or parents a better understanding of why you keep ending up at those crazy City Council meetings — here’s the link to a book that might help:


Use the coupon code FREESHIP to get that bennie.

Thanks.  You’re nice.


More (MOAR!) Books – Recommendations for your reading list (or for someone else)

Yesterday I pointed you to an introduction to the Wise Fool Press’s upcoming work, but obviously there’s a ton of good information and general good writing out there that is helping inform my thinking and that of many people who care about helping communities work better.  So if you’re interested in rethinking how your community works, I’ve created a page of additional resources that I think are worth your time, effort, and a little bit of your cash.  You can find those books and links to purchase them here, or under the MOAR Books! link at the top of the page.

Right now the list is short, but it will be getting longer.  If you have recommendations for other items to add, or if you want to add to the conversation about how these books made a difference for you or your community, just let me know.  Thanks!



Peek behind the curtain for Wise Fool Press

Since the launch of The Local Economy Revolution, people have been asking me about the Wise Fool Press.  So I wanted to make sure you knew that an overview of what the Wise Fool Press is about has been posted here.  This page also introduces a few upcoming publications, including

  • A how-to for creating more meaningful public engagement events; 
  • An exploration of how economic development might learn from the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approaches to urban planning, and
  • A collection of personal essays from people all over the country about why they work for the future of their communities, and how they keep going when it gets tough.

So I hope you’ll check the page out, and let me know what you’re excited about.  And as I said, we’re looking for partners to help make all these things happen faster and better, so let me know if you want to help us.



What we learned: lessons from the Rust Belt’s children

A slightly different version of this essay appeared about a week ago at my friend Jason Segedy’s blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com, and then (to my delight, because he deserves a much broader audience) at Rustwire.com.  In the meantime, I had done a little tweaking to the original post, since everyone benefits from an editor, myself definitely included.  So I’d like to share this with you as a very moving and profound response to my Rust Belt essay here not too long ago.

One thing that Jason gets at beautifully, which I think kind of got lost in my piece, is that neither my goal nor his was to rewrite history, to put some kind of Rust Belt Chic spin on the industrial era.  Jason references his uncle’s death in an industrial accident, which wasn’t as uncommon as you might think.  The Phelps brothers’ sculptures that I described in the previous piece resonates with me because of the labor and the dirt and the exhaustion they portray.  And my own father’s brain tumor probably had more than a little something to do with a lifetime around toxic chemicals. Romantic, not so much.

The thing that I want to explore, though, and that Jason has picked up on, is whether that experience of being in that time and that place at that formative age impacted how those of us who work on making communities better…do that work.  I think it colors the experience, shapes the perspective of this subset of 30- and 40-something community professionals and advocates, and my theory is that because of that experience, this subset does that work a little differently than others.

And since communities of all kinds and all regions are struggling with how to deal with massive changes, wicked problems and bewildering economic issues, maybe those of us who grew up in the first wave of this sea change might have something beneficial to offer.

So, I’m toying with this topic for an upcoming book, but I don’t know exactly where we’re going with it yet.  If you’d like to share your insights, please feel free to send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Thanks.  Here’s Jason.

Go to sleep, Captain Future, in your lair of art deco
You were our pioneer of progress, but tomorrow’s been postponed
Go to sleep, Captain Future, let corrosion close your eyes
If the board should vote to restore hope, we’ll pass along the lie

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

In the Beginning…

map of NE US
“Image Source: Wikipedia: Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954-2002. Dark red is very bad. Akron is dark red.”

As near as I can tell, the term “Rust Belt” originated sometime in the mid-1980s.  That sounds about right.  I originated slightly earlier, in 1972, at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World.

My very earliest memory is of a day, sometime in the summer of 1975, when my parents, my baby brother, and I went on a camping trip to Lake Milton, just west of Youngstown.  I was three years old.  I have no idea why, of all of the things that I could remember, but don’t, I happen to remember this one.  But it is a good place to start.

I remember looking at the green overhead freeway signs along the West Expressway in Akron.  I remember the overpoweringly pungent smell of rubber wafting from the smokestacks of B.F. Goodrich and Firestone.  I remember asking my mother about it, and she explained that those were the factories where the tires, and the rubber, and the chemicals were made.  They were made by hard-working, good people – people like my Uncle Jim.

When I was a little bit older, I would learn that this was the smell of good jobs; of hard, dangerous work; and of the way of life that built the modern version of this quirky and gritty town.  It was the smell that tripled Akron’s population between 1910 and 1920, transforming it from a sleepy canal-town to the 32ndlargest city in America.  It was a smell laced with melancholy, ambivalence, and nostalgia – for it was the smell of an era that was quickly coming to an end (although I was far too young to be aware of this fact at the time).  It was, sometimes, the smell of tragedy.

We stopped by my grandparents’ house in Firestone Park on the way to the campground.  My grandmother gave me a box of Barnum’s Animals crackers for the road.  My grandparents were Akron.  Their story was Akron’s story.  My grandfather was born in 1916 in Barnesboro, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, somewhere between Johnstown, DuBois, and nowhere.  His father, a coal miner, had emigrated there from Hungary nine years earlier.  My grandmother was born in Barberton, in 1920.  Barberton was reportedly the most-industrialized city in the United States, per-capita, at some point around that time.

They both worked in factories their entire working lives (I don’t think they called jobs like that “careers” back then).  My grandfather worked at Firestone.  My grandmother worked at the Saalfield Publishing factory, one of the largest producers of children’s books, games, and puzzles in the world.  Today, both of the plants where they worked form part of a gutted, derelict, post-apocalyptic moonscape in South Akron, located between that same West Expressway and…well, perdition.  The City of Akron has plans for revitalizing this area.  It needs to happen, but there are ghosts there…

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

My grandparents’ house exemplified what it was to live in working-class Akron in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  My stream-of-consciousness memories of that house include:  cigarettes and ashtrays; Hee-HawThe Joker’s Wild; fresh tomatoes and peppers; Fred & Lamont Sanford; Archie & Edith Bunker; Herb Score and Indians baseball on the radio on the front porch; hand-knitted afghans; UHF/VHF; 3, 5, 8, and 43; cold cans of Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon (back when the pop-tops still came off of the can); the Ohio Lottery; chicken and galuskas (dumplings); a garage floor that you could eat off of; a meticulously maintained 14-year-old Chrysler with 29,000 miles on it; a refrigerator in the dining room because the kitchen was too small; catching fireflies in jars; and all being right with the world.

I always associate the familiar comfort of that two-bedroom bungalow with the omnipresence of cigarette smoke and television.  I remember sitting there on May 18, 1980.  It was my eighth birthday.  We were watching TV coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State.  I remember talking about the fact that it was going to be the year 2000 (the Future!) in just twenty years.  It was an odd conversation for an eight year old to be having with adults (planning for the future already, and for a life without friends, apparently).  I remember thinking about the fact that I would be 28 years old then, and how inconceivably distant it all seemed.  Things seem so permanent when you’re eight, and time moves ever-so-slowly.

More often than not, when we visited my grandparents, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen would be there.  Uncle Jim was born in 1936, in West Virginia.  His family, too, had come to Akron to find work that was better-paying, steadier, and (relatively) less dangerous than the work in the coal mines.  Uncle Jim was a rubber worker, first at Mohawk Rubber and then later at B.F. Goodrich.  Uncle Jim also cut hair over at the most-appropriately named West Virginia Barbershop, on South Arlington Street in East Akron.  He was one of the best, most decent, kindest people that I have ever known.

I remember asking my mother once why Uncle Jim never washed his hands.  She scolded me, explaining that he did wash his hands, but that because he built tires, his hands were stained with carbon-black, which wouldn’t come out no matter how hard you scrubbed.  I learned later, that it would take about six months for that stuff to leach out of your pores, once you quit working.

Uncle Jim died in 1983, killed in an industrial accident on the job at B.F. Goodrich.  He was only 47.

The plant would close for good about a year later.It was an unthinkably tragic event, at a singularly traumatic time for Akron.  It was the end of an era.


Times Change

My friend Della Rucker recently wrote an essay entitled The Elder Children of the Rust Belt. .  It dredged up all of these old memories, and it got me thinking about childhood, about this place that I love and where I still live, and about the experience of growing up just as an economic era (perhaps the most prosperous and anomalous one in modern history) was coming to an end.

That is what the late 1970s and early 1980s was:  the end of one thing, and the beginning of a (still yet-to-be-determined) something else.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s because I was just a kid.

In retrospect, it was obvious:  the decay, the decomposition, the slow-at-first, and then faster-than-you-can-see-it unwinding of an industrial machine that had been wound-up far, far, too tight.  The machine runs until it breaks down; it is replaced then with a new and more efficient one – a perfectly ironic metaphor for an industrial society.  It was a machine made up of unions, and management, and capitalized sunk costs, and supply chains, and commodity prices, and globalization.  Except it wasn’t really a machine at all.  It was really just people.  And people aren’t machines.  When they are treated as such, and then discarded as obsolete, there are consequences.

You could hear it in the music:  from the decadent, desperately-seeking-something (escape) pulse of Disco, to the (first) nihilistic and (then) fatalistic sound of Punk and Post-Punk.  It’s not an accident that a band called Devo came from Akron, Ohio.  De-evolution:  the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.  It sounded a lot like Akron in the late 1970s.  It still sounds a little bit like the Rust Belt today.

As an adult, looking back at the experience of growing up at that time, you realize how much it colors your thinking and outlook on life.  It’s all the more poignant when you realize that the “end-of-an-era” is never really an “end” as such, but is really a transition to something else.  But to what exactly?

The end of that era, which was marked by strikes, layoffs, and unemployment, was followed by its echoes and repercussions: economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment; as well as the more intangible psychological detritus – the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation; the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.


And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time

As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

It sung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said


But it is both our tragedy and our glory that life goes on.

Della raised a lot of these issues:  our generation’s ambivalent relationship with the American Dream (like Della, I have the same unpleasant taste of rust in my mouth whenever I write or utter that phrase); our distrust of organizations and institutions; and our realization that you have to keep going, fight, and survive, in spite of it all.  She talks about how we came of age at a time of loss:

not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood.

One of the people commenting on her post said, essentially, that it is dangerous to romanticize about a “golden age;” that all generations struggle; and that life is hard.

Yes, those things are all true.  But they are largely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is a very large middle ground between a “golden age” and an “existential struggle.”  The time and place about which we are both writing (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) was neither heaven nor Lord of the Flies. .  But it is undoubtedly a time of extreme transition.  It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.

History is cyclical.  Regardless of how enamored Americans, in general, may be with the idea, it is not linear.  Our existence as a culture is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  We  see times of relative (and it’s all relative, this side of paradise) peace, prosperity, and stability; and other times of relative strife, economic upheaval, uncertainty, and instability.  But we have clearly moved from one of those times to the other, beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the present.  And I think the Rust Belt has been that movement’s ground zero.

The point that is easy to miss when uttering phrases like “life is hard for every generation,” is that none of this discussion about the Rust Belt – where it’s been, where it is going – has anything to do with a “golden age.”  But it has everything to do with the fact that this time of transition was an era (like all eras) that meant a lot (good and bad) to the people that lived through it.  It helped make them who they are today, and it helped make where they live what it is today.

For those of us who were kids at the time that the great unraveling began   a big part of our experience has been about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke.

In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends’ parents worked in rubber factories.

In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron.

By 1984, 90% of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory.

Just as when a person dies, people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment, and denial.


As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live.  The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, as a proud Akronite:  This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves.

That all got yanked away before I was 12.  I couldn’t believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it.  I could see it with my own eyes.  Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can’t live a lie the way that adults can.  When the place that you thought you lived in turns out not to be the place that you actually live in, it’s jarring and disorienting.  It can even be heartbreaking.


We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I’m fond of the above quote.  I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old.  Time, and the realization that life is short — and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it– has lessened its power considerably. But it remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie.  It certainly fits in quite well with all of this.

But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

I use the phrase “Rust Belt Orphan” in the original title of this post, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut-level.  But it’s a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing.

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the “Generation X” of regions – the place that just doesn’t seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself.  The place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because it has already been subsumed by its own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

The whole Gen-X misfit wandering-in-the-Rust Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom acknowledged, part of our regional culture.  It is probably just as well.

It’s so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie.  Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.


Whither the Future?

“The Greek word for “return” is nostosAlgos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us?

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on.  We have begun to do this in Akron, and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole.

But what does “making our peace” and “moving on” really mean?

In many ways, I think that our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades.  Nostalgia and angst regarding the things that have been lost (some of our identity, prosperity, and national prominence)are all part of the grieving process.  The best way out is always through.

But we should grieve, not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on, but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.  Coming to grips with and acknowledging those thingsultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief.  There’s a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with “moving on” — and (even worse) that “moving on” is synonymous with “getting over it.”

We’re very comfortable with that neat and tidy, straight, upwardly-trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive, and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, Amen). We’re not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention.  But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in.  It is far from perfect.  I wish that I had another one to offer you.  But there isn’t one.  For all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one inestimable advantage:  it is unambiguously real.

“Moving on” means refusing to become paralyzed by the past.  It means living up to our present responsibilities and striving every day to become the type of people that are better able to help others.  But “moving on” doesn’t mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn’t experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we’ve actually been dealt.

I don’t think we can, or should, “get over” the Rust Belt.  The very phrase “get over it” traffics in denial, wishful thinking, and the estrangement of one’s self from one’s roots.  Countless attempts to “get over” the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable short-sighted, “get rich quick” economic development projects and public-private pyramid-schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective, and expensive.

We don’t have to be  something that we are not. We can’t be, even if we want to.  But we do have to be the best place that we can be.  This might mean that we are a smaller, less-prominent place.  But it also means that we can be a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place.

The only people that can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, Big Business, and Big Industry, we’re so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization, and the Next Big Thing.  I’m not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both.

Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big?  No.  Absolutely not.

But it does mean that we should be prudent, and that we should  prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused, and ultra-diverse.  Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s  “Make no little plans…” quote has done us much harm.  Sometimes “little plans” are exactly what we need, because they involve fundamentals, they’re easier to pull off, and they more readily establish trust, inspire hope, and build relationships.

Those of us who came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges –and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on.  Those of us that stuck it out and still live here, know what we have been through.  We’re under no illusions about where we live, or who we are.  I think Della was on to something when she listed what she thinks that we can bring to the table:

  • Determination
  • Long-game focus
  • Understanding the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it
  • Resourcefulness
  • Ability to salvage
  • Expectation that there are no easy answers
  • Disinclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big Thing


When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills, and leadership.

It all rings true.

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.” 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams


So, let us have our final elegy for the Rust Belt.  Then, let’s get to work.


Grasshoppers without antennae: economic development and boxed-out young professionals

Want to get some help making your community’s economic development work better?  Check out www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  You might thank me for that.  Or maybe not.  Won’t know til you check, will you?  


In a rather eerie turn of events, I ran across an article from a few days ago in the New York Times a couple of hours after I put up an admittedly uncomfortable post designed to spur some conversation around the role of young professionals in economic development.  In the article “Embracing the Millenials’ Mind-Set at Work” by Tom Agan, you read this paragraph:

When a small, closed group…  holds power, it tends to limit information and education and resist innovations that threaten its strength, the authors explain. By contrast, innovation thrives when information is unfettered, education is nurtured, people can readily form new groups, and decision-making is inclusive. These circumstances offset the strong tendency of those in power to resist change — in a country or at a company.

Studies of organizations make the point of that paragraph pretty incontrovertibly — groups that limit information and resists innovations damage themselves because they destroy their ability to understand and deal with change.  They end up like a grasshopper that loses its antennae — they fail to perceive big pieces of what’s going on around them, which means that they can’t react appropriately.  Which usually

sparrow with cricket in beak
Bird Lunch. From http://www.backyardbirdcam.com/

means they end up as Bird Lunch.

That’s why every Fortune 100 you can think of puts huge effort anymore into increasing the range of its employees – gender and race, yes, but also cross-disciplinary team assignments.  It’s not just to make nice. They’re doing it to widen their scan of the market they operate in, and the emerging issues that will help or hurt them.  They’re doing it to strengthen their antennae.

The two words I deleted at the … were: “of elites.”  I deleted that because we tend to make that assumption — that the “elites” somehow are responsible for closing out those other voices — younger, older, GenX, whatever.

I edited that quote for a reason, and it wasn’t just to be nice.

We don’t have to think of ourselves as “elites,” or have anyone else think of us as “elites,”  for that deadly closing-off effect to occur.  If, as the Twitter stream quoted in my last post indicated, young professionals working in economic development are excluded from the mainstream of the profession and are having to have “their own conversations,”  I will posit to you that this is a major risk to the economic development profession.

But frankly, I’m not too worried about them.  Young professionals who want to make their communities better will find a way, and what professional label you put on yourself probably matters less and less in the context of addressing complex contemporary challenges.

The question, then: what happens to the grasshopper that has lost its antennae.


Important Question: Do younger people feel boxed out of economic development?

Christa Franzi of Camoin Associates posted an insightful Twitter stream to LinkedIn the other day.  I had been part of the original discussion on Twitter, so I was particularly glad to see the key elements pulled together.  Here’s what she posted — I’ve bolded a couple of the comments that I thought were particularly insightful/disturbing:

Originally posted this question on Twitter and wanted to include the greater economic development community — some initial responses below: 

@ta9ti Some young #EconDev pros may feel boxed out but 4 the profession to succeed they need to be welcomed in. #IEDC has a #YoungPro group. ~ GISPlanning

@GISplanning @ta9ti good q. Young pro for on LI at least had been very quiet. Seems like something more interactive is needed. But what? ~Della Rucker 

@ta9ti – It’s an old school crowd in #econdev with few reaching out to younger people. Not much plan for the future-> the ‘chasm’ is growing ~GISWebTech

@dellarucker @GISplanning I think they’re thirsty to be part of the #econdev conversation, but not always included so they have their own… ~ Christa Franzi

I wrote this response. and since there has been little reaction over there, I wanted to ask this question to a broader audience.  The key question is in bold at the end.
The comment from GISWebTech above is pretty telling, and it resonates with what I have been hearing from younger professionals all over the country.
The elephant in the room, perhaps, is that three issues are converging. First, younger professionals seem to be coming in more from public policy-related fields and educational/personal backgrounds than previous generations, who mostly came in from business, marketing, etc (I don’t know this for a fact, just my sense of the wind. Would be interested if anyone has better information). My hypothesis would be that this means that these folks are coming from a more holistic, and perhaps more complex, world view than folks who came in to the field with “go sell this town/state” marching orders.
Second, I would posit that younger folks might have a harder time buying into conventional, relatively simple understandings of the economic development job. Those that find themselves operating within a sell-at-all-costs, winning-is-the-only-thing environment might find it hard to reconcile that job description with the broader picture of the health of the communities they care about (where they work, where they grew up, whatever). If you have watched your community and the school district you came out of continue to struggle for funds, and you can go through your college friends and count the number working for low wages, part time, brutal hours, etc., …I wrote recently about how the experience of growing up in the Rust Belt when I did had the ability to blow big holes in your faith in the system, in your assumption that “New Economic Thing” = Issues That Matter To You Get Better. I wonder if some of that might be in play here.
Last, there’s no question in my mind that the economic development profession as a whole is going through some massive growing pains. Just like practically every industry , we’re being forced to shift from an old, formerly stable model to…. what? No one’s 100% sure yet. And that’s understandably scary for a lot of people who were comfortable with the way things used to work. So there’s this pervasive tension between status quo guards and those who might be wondering whether the Emperor actually has anything on.
All that isn’t unique to economic development, but as other industries trying to innovate have found, you have to open the door to let meaningful discussions about change happen. You have to make it OK for people to say that something needs to change, and by and large I don’t really see that going on in economic development at this point, certainly not to the extent that it has gone on in city management or urban planning. Without broadly and meaningfully opening the door, without enabling and accepting meaningful discussions about how to innovate — without making it OK within the professional culture to say something innovated– only the really bull-headed are going to take that risk. Instead, an alternative conversation is going develop, and the ability for the broader community to discover the changes that they need is going to be hobbled.
So, let me reframe the question: if young ED professionals are having “their own” conversations about the practice and future of economic development, how do the rest of us help get that conversation into the mainstream, for the benefit of all of us?

The Tornado at work: excepts from my interview at Strengthening Brand America

I was so honored that Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America asked me to do an interview with him about The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  That interview ran this morning.

A lot of SBA’s work is structured around the idea of reframing economic development work in terms of how it will impact existing local residents, and (being a good branding guy), he refers to that as helping residents reach their “American Dream.”  I wrote last week about how my own experience makes me deeply uneasy with even those words, and I think you’ll pick up on that if you’re paying attention.  That tension between Ed’s vision and my past experience creates a question that I’d like to hear from you about sometime: Do we know what residents are looking for, and do we actually have the ability to help them achieve it?  And should we?

Ah, yes, the interview.

The Local Economy Revolution is one of those packages of ideas that’s simple on the surface, but sometimes hard to fully get your head around.  As a result, I’ve been slowly learning how to explain what this book is about,, and do it in a way that balances the hearfelt and the head-worthy.  I think I’m getting better at it.

You can read the whole interview here (including the part where Ed describes me as a terrible destructive force feared by all Midwesterners…hm), but here’s a taste:

So what I most wanted to do with this book was peel back, get underneath the level of the programs and methods that we tell people they should be using, and get to the deeper place of why it matters.  Why is it that we need to change what we do so fundamentally?  What’s driving the need to discard some of our familiar old approaches and strike out in directions that are unfamiliar and scary?  Why should I keep trying when it’s hard, so very hard?

The book was designed to give people an underpinning, a deep framework for understanding why all the new methods and change are necessary. And hopefully find some encouragement to keep at it when the work of being a changemaker gets tough.

…I am starting to conclude that the attraction model of economic development, at its core, has largely outlived its usefulness, and I think that simply transferring economic development’s historic dependence on attraction strategies from businesses to people… doesn’t fundamentally impact the root of the problem.

Here’s what I mean:  If a community is going to focus on “becoming a magnet for top talent,” it’s going to find itself in tighter and tighter competition for a pool of “talent” that, if it’s growing, isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate necessary to appease the huge and growing number of places trying to jockey for a piece of that action. ….

The goal can’t be simply making your community a magnet for talent. I think we have to shift internally, to focus on making the best possible use of the community and human assets we have in our communities. That means growing our own talent based on the unique environment that each place individually offers.   And we have to start with the raw materials that we have to work with.  Otherwise we have just shifted the hunt for big businesses to the hunt for fancy degrees, while the places we are trying to attract them to fall apart.

I want to not only see the denizens of the other local government silos at the economic development plan table, but I want to see the shop teacher, the high school student, the immigrant mom, the environmental whacko who opposes everything….they all need to be part of it, or at some level, it doesn’t work.  It won’t work, it will miss something important. That doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to drag the work off track or overturn the objectives. It does mean that a structure is used to engage them in the search for solutions that everyone knows we need.

I don’t claim to have a magic answer to all our community economic woes.  What I have concluded is that our usual simplistic approaches – shoving on two or three levers and insisting that our tweaks on those will generate the complex results that we said we wanted – that’s not working.  As humankind, we have methods for understanding and dealing with complex interrelationships, but we’re not using them on the public policy level yet.  My long-term objective for the Wise Fool Press is to help us do that better.  But we have to make that mental shift, step out of that simplistic paradigm first, before we can do the rest.


Thanks again to Ed for the very kind opportunity to continue to share this message.

Tactical Economy?

I have written a few blog entries and posted a few videos at the Local Economy Revolution book web site this week about an event that I participated in last weekend in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  This small town on the edge of the Cumberland Gap held an event called Better Block Boro, and I was one of three national figures who were invited to come, participate and share our expertise.  The other two, Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative and Matt Tomasulo of Walk Your City, helped the participants implement some tactical urbanism strategies to demonstrate the impact that some relatively simple improvements could make in terms of the downtown area’s quality of life.

I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in “pop-up” conversations with Mike, Tom, Isaac (the downtown program manager) and many others about how low-cost, low-risk improvements like these impact local economies.  With everything that was going on, we had a lot of food for thought.

You can review some of the photos and videos from that event at localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.

Tactical urbanism at work.  Guerilla historic markers.  Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at http://wp.me/p3SamA-1m
Tactical urbanism at work. Guerilla historic markers. Makes you realize the potential right in front of you, See more examples at http://wp.me/p3SamA-1m

As I was driving away from Middlesboro that afternoon, I started thinking more directly about how the principles behind tactical urbanism might be applied to revitalizing local economies as well.  There’s several spoken and, sometimes, unspoken assumptions behind tactical urbanism that drive this strategy’s relevance and increasing importance for communities these days.  Without cribbing from any of the standard sources, here’s my interpretation of why Better Block/tactical urbanism efforts have become such a powerful part of the urban planning landscape:

  • They focus on improvements that are achievable in the short term.  Rather than waiting to pull together the funding, the plans, the approvals needed to do a Big Project, they emphasize doing what they can do with what’s available.  Pallets get turned into chairs and bike racks and tables and hanging planters (how many uses can you think of for a wooden delivery pallet?  A whole lot more than I had come up with, apparently).  Vacant lots get turned into outdoor dining spaces and music stages, and extra parking spaces turn into community gathering spots.
  • They place emphasis on the community education that comes from the improvements as much or more so than the actual thing they build themselves.  The goal of a pallet street chair isn’t just to give people someplace to sit.  It’s to give them a real-world lesson in the impact of making public spaces comfortable for people to hang out in.  The implicit realization: many places have had such paltry human-scale public space investment over the last couple of generations that building support for meaningful investments means physically demonstrating what we can do and how it can impact the community.
  • They know that iterative is OK.  A Better Block event is by its nature a little messy.  You have volunteers working on a dozen little projects, things being built out of castoffs, “scavengers” hunting for more wood or tarps or whatever, and a constant stream of “Where can I find an extension cord?” “Do you know where the staple gun is?”  “What do you need me to do?”  The goal isn’t to do everything.  It’s to do enough, this time, with what we’ve got, to move things forward, to spark some understanding and some energy, to get farther down the road to something better than we are today.

One thing Mike Lydon told me is that when his firm proposes to design conventional streetscapes or park improvements or the like anymore, they add a tactical urbanism piece to their proposal — they want to build something physical, something temporary, to maintain the community’s desire to implement the full plan during the long period between finishing the pretty pictures and getting the funding and approvals together to build the permanent project.  They’ve come to understand that people need to see forward momentum, that simply designing something to plop into a space often doesn’t empower the change in minds and hearts necessary to make real community change happen.  After decades of working with urban planners and designers across the spectrum, I felt like a veil had been lifted.


The broad conditions that I think have led to the growth of tactical urbanism pull from the same zeitgeist that is impacting how we do a lot of the work that we find ourselves needing to do with our community’s economy.  That includes:

  • Not enough money to do the big projects that we relied on in years past
  • Increasing awareness of the complexity and interrelated impacts that those big projects can generate
  • Increasing levels of peoples’ ability to access and spread their own information (or misinformation) about your Big Project’s feared impacts
  • Increasing distrust that the Big Project will have all the benefits that its supporters promise.

For physical planners, those Big Projects might have been multi-million dollar streetscapes or parks.  For people in economic development and revitalization, that might be big commercial building projects, things that require big financial incentives, big business recruitment.  Just like the streetscapes and the parks, those kinds of economic projects still happen in many places, but the broad trend seems to be that they are getting harder to do, demand more and more money and staff time and community energy, and too often fail to live up to their promised impacts.

So, this is the germ of an idea, and I’m putting it out to you for your ideas, thoughts, brick-throwing exercise, whatever.

I think that we need to start developing a Tactical Economy toolkit.  When people want to do Better Block stuff, a quick Google search can give them all sorts of ideas for projects to try and stuff to build.  Part of what people find when they do that search is simply ideas that they might not have come up with otherwise (how often do you think of putting up guerilla historic signs?), while the other part is specific plans and step-by-step instructions, such as to build a chair.  Not exactly something you want to just take a flyer at and then leave out for people to sit on.

We need both of these in  Tactical Economy toolkit.  Some of the tools might be pretty straightforward to implement – the challenge may be simply helping people think of them.  Others might require some how-to instructions.

What do you think?



You can’t please all the people all the time. And it’s probably not worth trying to.

If you’re interested in improving how local governments and community organizations work, check out The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  You’ll be glad you did. Available for digital and print.  


In local government public engagement, we tend to rely on a very simple– simplistic, really– metric for public engagement:

How many?

How many showed up? How many logged on? How many names on the sign in sheet? How many butts in the chairs?

sleeping students in lecture hall
From www.danielpradilla.info


Like many of the metrics we use in local government, we use this one because it’s easy to see, easy to grasp. Economic developers, for example, tout the number of jobs the agony new project will create. Don’t ask most of them what old jobs those new jobs are creating, or whether the pay our tax levels will justify the money spent on them (off topic rant hereby derailed.)


What we fail to measure–or, often, think about– is the quality of the public engagement. In the case of public engagement (different from economic development), that’s partly because of our deeply-rooted democratic principles. Everyone’s voice matters, right? Therefore, everyone needs to participate…or at least as many as we can possibly drag in there.

After a couple of decades of trying to drag everyone and their mother out to my public meeting or onto my online platform, I’m wondering if we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Face it: not everyone cares about everything. We just can’t– and as people work harder, and work longer, and have more and more demands on their time, and as the issues we have to deal with become more and more varied and complicated…how much can we realistically expect?


Confession time: I haven’t attended a council meeting or planning commission or public open house or whatever for the village I live in in the past four years. And I’m the one in this little burg who makes an living quoting chapter and verse about the importance and virtues of public engagement.


So why haven’t I?


Well, I got other things to do…


The fact of the matter is that there’s been nothing going on that I feel like _needs_ my attention. There’s nothing going on regarding which I have anything unique or particularly beneficial to offer–for myself or for the community. So I choose to put my time somewhere where I think it can make a bigger impact.


Maybe we need to stop assuming that everyone should want to come to our public meeting–and stop assuming that if they don’t, it’s because they are “disengaged.” Like many other issues, we’re probably viewing that too simply– as too much of a binary choice. People make choices with their time just like they make choices with their money- and they make alot of those choices based on the expected return on investment. If they’re not coming to your meeting in droves, that may simply mean that the droves don’t think that they will get an adequate return on investment for their effort.


Maybe they’re wrong, maybe they’re right.


But within the droves, chances are that there is some subset that cares about the issue, and cares about it a lot. And I’ve reached this conclusion: all other things being equal, and assuming that every possible person has been informed and warmly invited to your public engagement event…


A small turnout might not be a bad thing. Especially, and perhaps necessarily, if those people have the opportunity to make deeply constructive contributions. Maybe even more constructive than if a hundred people who didn’t really get it showed up.


I’m not trying to be an elitist….I know as well as anyone the risks of letting the diehard obsessives make the plan. It’s easy, way too easy, for The Passionate to feed off each other and turn into The Nut Jobs. And that’s where it becomes critically important to use strong activity structures and active group management methods to keep the people who care enough to participate within the bounds of reality. That’s making sure that the interests of those for whom this issue didn’t have sufficient ROI still get recognized.

My main point is that engaging a small number of the dedicated should be counted as a success…If we have engaged them constructively. Sometimes the main thing we need is to crowdsource a little wisdom from those who are willing to invest it.


Miles to go before I sleep: Events & appearances this week (Oct. 23-26)

Having just come through a presentation and great discussions at the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Salt Lake City, and then a moderated session and lots of great discussions at the International Economic Development Council Annual Conference in Philadelphia…

you’d think it might be a good idea to stay near home for a while.  And my landscaping and half-empty freezer would agree with you, not to mention the other humans in the house:

(“What do you mean you can’t pick me up this afternoon?”  “Um, I’m in Utah, for one thing…”)

However, that’s not gonna happen.  Next week I’ll be roaming all over, switching hats on the fly and burning up my tires as I go.  Here’s the itinerary:

  • Wednesday and Thursday morning (October 23 and 24), I’ll be at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City Economic Summit in my role as Managing Editor of Engaging Cities.  My plan is to record interviews and conversations with as many interesting people as I can during the time I’m there. If you see anyone on the agenda that you’re particularly interested in hearing from, let me know and I’ll work on it I’ll cross post what I learn both here and at EngagingCities.



  • Friday night, I’ll be heading from Columbus to Middlesborough, Kentucky to participate in their inaugural Better Block Boro event on Saturday, October 26.  I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting into, but it promises to be a combination street fair, unconference, urban hack, and DIY urbanism event — all in a (formerly) quiet Appalachian town.  I’ll be leading a pop up talk/discussion around the learnings from my new book, The Local Economy Revolution:What’s Changed and How You Can Help, signing booksdesk, and nosing around and recording as much of the other stuff going on as I can.

Then I come back and try to remember where my office is!

desk by window
The desk at The Clearing in Wisconsin where I wrote The Local Economy Revolution. If I end up here, I’m in big, big trouble.

Best Practice, Emerging Trends in online public engagement

Note: a version of this article is also running at EngagingCities.  Just so’s you know.

About two weeks ago I spoke on a panel with Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studio and Tim Bonneman of Intelletics at the International Association of Public Participation’s North American conference.  Tim had organized the session as a conversation around the topic of “Navigating the Online Public Engagement Space,” with the intent to explore the issuess and challenges facing communities and organizations who are trying to figure out how to use online public engagement in their work, and navigate the dozens of potential ways to do that.

This was a fantastic opportunity for me personally to think big with two guys who are among the leaders in the U.S on this topic.  Even though I work with Chris in his role as founder and publisher of EngagingCities, as well as on client projects, it’s great to get some space to talk about the big issues.  And the experience was made all the better by Tim’s session leadership and the involvement of our colleagues from communities and tech providers across the continent.
Since I’m not a programmer or a tool-maker, my role was to frame up the big issues and the big trends– the stuff that I get to see by virtue of my role with EngagingCities and with my other consulting and publishing firm, the Wise Economy Workshop.

So I set my own comments within the two perspectives of my professional life: as a user of several online public engagement tools through my consulting work, and as an observer of the field through Engaging Cities. And I thought it might be useful to share those big issues with you.

Here’s what I told them from underneath my consulting hat:

1) The most important thing you can probably do is make sure that you have matched the tool you choose to your  objectives.  One of the most consistent errors I have seen is people selecting an app or platform because they like how it looks, or it seems cool or exciting, or another town use it for their project and loved it.  But it is not a one size fits all, or even an easy off-the-rack kind of situation.

The project or initiative leadership needs to ask a lot of questions and dig deeply.  Are we trying to do something ongoing or project specific? Are we talking to the general public or a more targeted subset? Are we seeking feedback or something more engaged?  The broader it the scope of the work, the harder it is to get it right.  And while three years ago, you may have had few practical choices, that’s not the case today.  There are dozens of great tools out there, designed for different purposes and audiences, but not all of them have the same level of visibility or marketing reach. The best-known one might, or might not, be the best choice for your specific needs.  And chances are that a long or complex initiative may need more than one approach.  Chris noted how often he sees communities looking for “uber-tools,” and we all agreed that no tool can pull that off.
2) One issue that we often overlook in that process of figuring out our online public engagement is fitting our tools to our capacity.  Online public engagement often looks appealing to a local government or organization because we don’t have to have our staff spend time printing boards and staffing evening meetings.  But online public engagement also requires staff capacity, just a different kind.  And often communities don’t account for that in the process of deciding what tools to use.
Here’s an example: I recently managed an online public engagement process that used one of the most well- known ideation tools in the US public sector today.  This platform is very well developed, and one of the most powerful things it does is enable project staff to respond to ideas generated by the public.  The power in this is the fact that the responses help people know that the agency is listening and actually pays attention to what’s going on with the site.  Without that response, it’s hard for people to know whether the feedback they’re taking the time to share is actually getting anyone’s attention or not.   This client, which wanted to use the platform because of its reputation, didn’t have the political willpower or the staff capacity to respond…and as the consultant, I didn’t have enough information to do it for them.  So this critical element of the platform went unused, they received a dwindling amount of public participation as the project progressed, and the silence became noticeable.

3) Channel, channel channel.  I harp on this in all public engagement, whether online or in person.  A wide open platform does no one any good.  Good teachers manage their students’ ability to meet their objectives through how they structure the learning process.  They don’t just throw it open and let whatever happens happen.

A public engagement process that doesn’t leverage social media and provide some opportunity somewhere for open public comments will probably garner complaints, but feedback through wide open channels is more likely to be an antagonistic, stress-level-jacking waste of time than anything else.  If we want people to give us feedback that has value, that helps us figure our what to do and what not to do, we need to take a page from those teachers, and structure the feedback activities and channels so that people participate with us, not just throw up random responses that may or may not have anything to do with what we all need to figure out.
4) Wherever possible, crowdsource wisdom, not just opinions.  Give them something meaningful to chew on.  People don’t want to be just asked their opinion.  They–at least a sizeable number of the they’s — want to be part of the solution.  So take a page from crowdsourcing:  enable them to contribute to solving the problem.

In my role as EngagingCities’ Editor, I focus on the leading edge of interface between technology and public engagement.  We try to bring our readers the information, trends, new ideas that they might not find otherwise.  As a result, I read a lot of pretty obscure blogs–and learn a lot about online engagement trends across the world, including many that I would have never encountered otherwise.

Here’s what I see as the strongest emerging trends at this moment–I’d be very interested in whether you see the same, or if you’re perceiving something else.

1) Visual interfaces. as the technology matures, I find the growth of interfaces and interaction methods that rely on maps, photos and graphics fascinating.  They’re being used more and more to not only improve people’s grasp of the information, but also to give them new methods of participating.  I’m a verbally-oriented person myself, but I know enough to know that I am the minority.  Most people do not want to read a paragraph, let alone write one to get their opinion across, but historically that’s what we have defaulted to.  Accommodating other types of communication, both for people who can’t write and those who just don’t want to, is critical to broadening engagement.  The fact that Pinterest and Tumblr are the two fastest growing social media sites tells us a lot.

2) It’s a multi-platform world.  I swap between my phone and tablet and computer without thinking about it, including flipping over to one when the other is running slow.  If that’s the case for an old lady like me who still has a computer, how much more is that the case for the increasing number of people who have learned to default to their mobile–or who, among less privileged populations, do most or all of their internet access through mobile? We provide interpreters for public meetings, but a community that decides to use only web-based methods is excluding a large subset of their population in exactly the same manner they are trying to avoid.  And typically the ones that they’re excluding are the young and disadvantaged.  An unintended but undesirable side effect.

3) We’re starting to move past using online for only idea-generating or feedback.  If you’re thinking about developing an app, I would say, don’t do something that looks like a survey or a “hey! Tell us your great idea!!” thing.  I assure you, it’s been done and done over again.  But we are starting to see platforms that actually enable discussion, consensus-building, meaningful evaluation of alternatives, deliberation, decision making.  The higher order tasks that we truly need if we are going to, as I’ve been pushing for all over, crowdsource wisdom.   We’re starting to see some interesting tools that take people through the impacts of different choices, and we’re stating to see the development of platforms that actually lead people through a deliberate process, much like a professional facilitator would.

4) Open data is moving swiftly from a “gee whiz, look what we can do!” to a transformative tool that’s starting to live up to its long-vaunted potential.  I am all in favor of hackathons, especially if they pull people into thinking transformationally about the way communities work and how they can meet their new and articles challenges.  But hackathons alone won’t develop the deep fixes that we need.  They’re just a first step.  But we’re starting to see more and more that people who have gotten a taste of how open data can help connect people more meaningfully to their communities, and that’s yoking a much-needed new set of skills and, more importantly, perspective, to the challenges that face us.

Thanks again to Tim, Chris, and the other participants for what I hope will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation.  If you want to hear the whole session, you can listen to or download the audio here. (warning: it’s a conference session, so it runs over an hour).
You can also check out the Hackpad notes developed during the session, and add to the conversation yourself, at

For the People Who Give A Damn: Della gets interviewed by PodCatalyst

I had such a great interview the other day with Clay Banks, one of the brains behind the great economic development podcast Podcatalyst….and discovered to a little bit of shock when they posted the interview that he had pulled the title from a line in the introduction of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.

In the introduction, I say that the book is for community professionals, elected officials and the broad variety of “people who give a damn” about their communities.

My mother would not be happy, but ya know, I think it fits….

Podcatalyst does a great job of sharing interesting conversations with people who are doing ground-breaking economic development stuff all over the country.  We’re looking at developing a partnership with Podcatalyst to cross-post content (they have an Itunes feed, while we go with SoundCloud).    So I’d encourage you to check out my interview, but to also dig through their catalog.

So be sure to check out this interview, and the rest of Podcatalyst’s work.   And thanks so much to Chad, Trey and Victoria for the chance to chat!

The Book is DONE! The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help

Woo Hoo!

After much head-thumping against online publishing systems and my own levels of distraction, the first Wise Economy publication is finally on sale!

The book is titled The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  It’s designed to do the one thing that the piles upon piles of economic development/local government/planning books out there don’t do:

It’s designed to give all  of us a deep understanding about how what we need to do in our communities has changed, and help us summon the bravery and determination to go do it in the face of all the frustrations and resistance that any change-maker is going to encounter.

For that reason, I wrote it in the most accessible, personal style I could muster.  You’ll find some talk in here about economic structures, measurement systems, downtown revitalization strategies and economic development incentives, but you’ll also find stories designed to bring that abstract stuff down to where our guts live — to families, personal histories, loves and loss.  cover of book

Longtime readers of the Wise Economy blog will probably recognize some of the stories, but you’ll also find new stories and a new sense of comprehension, structure and meaning that becomes possible when you work in something bigger than 600 – word chunks.  And more importantly, I think you will find something here that you can share – with your colleagues, with your board members and volunteers, to help encourage them to see the big picture of what you’re trying to do, and maintain the willpower to keep it going forward.  I think, and hope, that this book gives you a platform to support your own local economy revolution.

I’m obviously not just doing a charity here, but writing this book, like most of the writing I do, isn’t a great money-making proposition.  The market for books is glutted and even with all the online tools, it’s hard as hell for one little voice to get itself heard.  But after a lot of years of listening to the resolve and fight and  heartbreaks of many of you, and watching what works and what seems to be failing, I think this book is a message that we all need right now — that engages the head and the heart together and strengthens us to keep pursuing what we know our communities need.

So, I’m hoping you’ll help.

First, if you want to buy the book, you have four current options:

  • You can buy it for your Kindle e-reader here.  You can also download a free Kindle Reader app for your smartphone or tablet or computer here – it works well.
  • You can buy it for a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader here.
  • If you’d like a hard copy, nicely bound and all pretty-like version, we got’cha covered right here.
  • AND, if you want to go relatively old-school and don’t mind doing your own printing, you can get a PDF version el cheapo here!

I’m still working on the Apple iBook edition.  But that’s coming soon.


Second, if you do get a copy and read it (and you don’t completely hate it), I’d be grateful for your positive review on any of the sites.  Even a couple of sentences would be helpful.  If you’re really sweet, I might ask your permission to put your quote in the front of the next version!

Third, if you want to learn more about how exactly we can get this hard and important work done, bookmark http://localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  We’ll be sharing real-world examples and having important discussions over there.

Fourth, if you have colleagues, bosses, junior staffers, elected officials, volunteers or random humans that you think would benefit from the paradigm-shift and encouragement that this book offers, please share with them.


As I wrote somewhere near the end of this thing, we who are trying to make our places better often feel like a violin in the void.  But in our communities, a strong violin can change the void.  We can do that.  We have to do that.

It’s a job for the head and the heart.  My deepest hope is that this book feeds both.


So vive la revolucion.  And thanks for joining me on the adventure.




It’s not an answer, it’s a conversation: EMSI and learning to use data for decisions (audio interview)

This interview with Rob Sentz of Economic Modelling Specialists Inc. (EMSI) introduces you to one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive data analysis platforms out there today, and it gives a great insight into why producing a Thing that grabs a lot of data — or grabbing data to try to plug into a fast decision —  isn’t enough.  Not if we actually intend to develop intelligent solutions to wicked community problems.

When I heard that EMSI was starting a fairly intensive training program for users of its subscription-based tool, I was a little surprised.  Even the earlier versions of the EMSI platfom that I have used in years past were, I thought, pretty easy to use, and I knew the new version, which I had seen but hadn’t played with, was even more user-friendly.  So why would this very established platform, with lots of long-term users, feel the need to get into the training business?

The answers, for me, were pretty interesting.  Here’s a few of the elements that I think are most informative:

  • EMSI wanted people to understand what they were doing.  They wanted users to not only grab data sets that looked relevant, but they wanted people to understand the background of the data they were using — what a source was designed for, what it includes, what it doesn’t include, what assumptions underlie that data set and how it might or might not be relevant to your situation.  Educated people, theoretically, know that data sources are only as good as the source, and than garbage in can equal garbage out.  But how often do you use online information, or get handed some kind of analysis, and have any clue whether you can actually trust the information to mean what you think it does?  And if you don’t know if you can trust it, do you take it on faith or do you slip it into the drawer and go back to deciding by the seat of your pants?


  • EMSI seems to understand that in pushing for this higher level of understanding, they are quietly fighting against one of the biggest challenges facing every analyst, analysis-user or data-provider:  We want that pile of information to directly tell us what to do.  Make it easy, on us, we secretly tell our computers.  Just give me an answer, hand me a Number, and let me get on with it.  But Rob articulates the challenge beautifully: real data analysis, the kind that allows us to make intelligent decisions, is not a magic pill.  There are few easy answers.  Meaningful data analysis requires, as he put it, a “conversation” with the data — a back-and forth process that takes us gradually through the layers and builds a mature understanding, not a simplistic assumption  — or a wild goose chase.


  • EMSI came to this understanding out of a very simple strategy: they listened to their customers.  As Rob says, ” Any time you create a technology, people will use it for stuff you haven’t planned on.”  So EMSI has remained in conversation with its users, too — and grown and changed along with them.  It wasn’t enough to just put a platform out there and update the information regularly.  The meaning, and the value, of what they provide to their subscribers, comes from this ongoing conversation, and their willingness to change in ways that build that relationship.  And that’s a different skill set than crunching data or building an app.

After all the time I’ve spent lately  talking with Pete Mallow about The Number and how we have to do economic analysis better, and all the time I spend here and at Engaging Cities looking at online civic tech, I particularly enjoyed this conversation with Rob.   You can learn more about EMSI and its tools, and read some great case studies, at http://www.economicmodeling.com.  And if you decide to call them up, say hello for me.



The Last of the Yankees

My father was one of the last of the Yankees.  He was part of a culture that has, largely, vanished.  Change didn’t happen fast, but it happened pretty thoroughly when it did.


My son Jon and I watched a movie tonight that referenced the Salem witch trials, and he didn’t understand what that was about.  In explaining it to him, I remembered that one of his great-great etc. grandfathers had been a founder of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1628.


Even though I’ve known that for years, it’s kind of bewildering when you think about it.  Anything that gets into Puritan life happened an incredibly long time ago, and a world we can hardly comprehend.  But I can run a straight genealogical line from me back to him.



My dad was what they used to call a Western Reserve Yankee.  I don’t think anyone other than Ohio history geeks knows that term anymore.  But virtually pure Western Reserve Yankee he was.  As far as I know, every grandmother, every grandfather in his family line could trace back to a boat full of Puritans landing in New England. The only exception I know of was my great-grandmother, who actually moved here from England.  (I inherited some of her china, which is hideous in the way only intensely proper, scrupulously formal Victorian people could have pulled off).   With what I know of the family tree, I think I’ve got DAR status a few times over.  I don’t say that from some sense of pride, but from a sense of how bizarre that is today.

painted plate
The plates. I told you they were ugly.


The area where I grew up around Cleveland is dotted with Western Reserve Yankee remnants…towns with ruler-straight central squares anchored by towering brick and stone Old Town Halls and massive, geegaw-encrusted Protestant churches.  The classic visual representations of power and order that dates from far earlier that New England, rendered in the precise lines and perfect angles of a neat grid system imposed on relatively flat and un-rocky land.  You can almost read the ambition, the optimism, the sense of “Finally! A place where we can do it right!” in the earnestness of these town centers.


Even as a kid, growing up in a postcard Western Reserve Yankee town, I knew that my lineage was weird.  Where I grew up, the question “where is your family from?” was so straightforward for almost all of my classmates that no one even bothered to ask.  The Lesniewskis came from Poland, the Starnonis’ grandpa came come from Italy.  Simple–all you needed was a family name to fill in the rest of the story.


Where’s your family from, Della?  Um, here, I guess.



Actually, that long Yankee lineage ended with me. My mom was Scotch-Irish Appalachian, although she wouldn’t have said it that way (“hillbilly” didn’t work either–and would earn you a smack on the head).


By the standards of the children of immigrants around me, that didn’t look like a difference worth noting.  But I figured out early on that Mom and Dad had somehow reached across a pretty deep cultural divide.  And after my dad died, I found out from my mom that her mother in law never accepted her–that she thought the southern girl, in her heels and pearls and carefully scrubbed untwanged accent, was still not good enough for her son.  She believed that until the day she died.


I read an article recently that described the decline in the number of people in the US who trace their roots to traditionally southern population groups.  Even in my mother’s Appalachia, the proportion of people who come from that background is steadily declining.  The precedent cited, the previous US population to pull this disappearing act? Yankees.


I can’t ask my parents anymore what it meant to be Appalachian or Yankee–they’re both dead many years.  And I suspect that my child’s sense of their paradigms, their home cultures, in a sense, would miss large pieces of the story and probably render their experience too simply.  I can sense an assumption of personal responsibility that came with my dad’s understanding of the world, and that might have come from his place in a long line of Yankee small business owners.   And my mom placed a priority on justice and fairness that might have come from being the child of a blacklisted Appalachian labor organizer.  But what those cultures meant to them, how they were influenced, how they choose to pull away from them, I only know in bits and pieces.


One thing that I do know is that the economic upheavals that hit the Rust Belt in the 1970s and 80s undercut both sets of assumptions, probably quicker and more deeply than generational change and intermarriage among populations could have done alone.  That Yankee optimism and emphasis on the rewards of hard work became much harder for my dad to hold during the years after the family business collapsed and his manufacturing experience became largely worthless.  And my mother’s Appalachian sense of faith and independence must have taken a painful hit when we had to accept food donations during a particularly rough year.



Western Reserve Yankees disappeared because people like my father found the freedom to marry outside of their old cultures–the classic tale of assimilation told from the inside out. And it took generations of living among other groups to get to that point.


I think we are entering a phase of very swift, fundamental economic and cultural change, and we are just starting to see how that will affect our culture, our sense of self and our expectations of ourselves and the world around us.  As I work with folks in civic tech and entrepreneurship across the country, I have a growing sense that something is profoundly changing–not just in how we write letters or talk to elected officials, but in how we fundamentally see, understand and interact with the world.  It’s a change that I think will accelerate much faster that even my father, in the painfully dislocated days of 1983, could have imagined.  But “much faster,” for the really deep stuff, probably still means a generation.  Not next week.


As we’re getting ready for this crazy-changing future, we’re slamming into the inevitable conflict, miniaturized by my proper grandmother’s refusal to accept her son’s wife.


You know what I’m talking about, regardless of your topic of interest or your favorite political fight.


It’s the Old Guard.  They piss us off, they don’t get it, they block us like duplicitous mules screwing up our ability to get to that future, whatever it is.  A thousand political confrontations across the US and the world bring that into stark relief.  If you’re trying to improve something in your community or your profession or your country, you’ve hit it. Or you will soon.  I certainly hit that every day myself.


It’s incredibly easy to forget to see the humanity behind that stubborn holding on to old assumptions, old expectations, old conventions and old ways of doing business.  People who are on the fading end of a way of life often react (in the pit of their guts, underneath all the rhetoric), out of a deep-seated, unarticulated, visceral fear.  For those of us who have accepted a changing world, who are taking about things like open government and hackerspaces, let alone those who look aghast at regressive social policies and old-school political manipulation, all that holding on to the past makes no sense.


And it’s really easy to demonize them.  All the easier because they’re often damn good at demonizing everyone else.


Sociologists call it “itification” – the tendency to ascribe less than human characteristics or assumptions to other people.  We do it all the time.  We do it because it’s easy – a hell of a lot easier than trying to deal with real messy conflicted humans.


As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a polemicist.  I’d probably be a more successful consultant if I was.


Pragmatically, I see three basic options before us: wait until They die off, push Them out, or find ways to force the discussions back to a search for common ground.  The first two are ostensibly easier, but the cost and the waste might leave us nothing more than hollow, exhausted victors surveying a burnt-out land.


The last one looks, hard, way too hard.  But it’s the least costly, and the most likely to move the needle.


We used to be able to do that, at least some of the time. But we’ve kind of forgotten how.  As Jason Segedy wrote on this page a few days ago, Gen X and Millenial people have never lived in a world where reasoned political debate happened.


But by that same token, maybe that means that we’re the ones who have to change that.  Because the Old Guard can’t or won’t


We can push that important change by refusing to put up with the simplistic answers, and by forcing factual information into the light.  By refusing to itify, to let ourselves get stuck with those false choices, to get trapped in the yes-you-are-no-I’m-not playground sniping that we should have outgrown in 3rd grade.


That will require a higher level of sophistication in understanding the tactics of rhetoric  — and conscious awareness of how to end-run those playground rules and take control of the conversation.  We have to get much more intelligent about it.  And we have to realize that changing these bad habits will take time, especially when others don’t want to give them up.


I know.  A lot easier said than done.


It’s one of those things mothers always say, and we hate it but we know it’s truth: two wrongs don’t make a right.




Deep change takes time.  That’s the fact of the human condition.  The important improvements to urban life fostered by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century took decades to find their place in law and practice.  That doesn’t excuse the pain and suffering that might have been prevented if old interests had stopped stonewalling.  But it is a sobering reminder of how change actually plays out.  And for a lot of issues, we right now are just at the very beginning.


In a political and cultural environment that has replaced discussion with screeching, and a 24-hour “news” world that has to shove a steady stream of crap at us to try to keep our attention, we forget that change is a long game, not a round of Space Invaders.  But the song remains the same.


Just because the opposing side of your debate acts like an ass doesn’t mean that’s they will win at the end of the day.  More importantly, it does not mean that you have to play by those rules.  That’s the good news.  But if sticking to the high ground is the right way to do it, we must remember the “sticking” part.  Chances are the change we seek won’t happen before the next issue of USA Today comes out.


Eventually, though, we will probably find ourselves wondering who made those ugly plates and all those perfect square-cornered parks, and why those minute details mattered to them so much.  The Old Guard has deep influence, but even the Yankees eventually fade away.


False Choices, Suburban/Urban, Welcome to Reality in Akron

Yesterday I shared with you an excerpt from a great piece by Jason Segedy that used a recent post from New Geography about raising children in urban versus suburban environments as a platform for calling us to order around the over-simplification of our “debates” over planning and public policy.  As he said so well,

“Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic.”

Jason did a great job of challenging us to stop allowing this kind of yes-no-yes-know thinking, and challenging us to debate all of the “hows” of how we organize communities “with intelligence and good will.”

In the same post that I pulled that selection from, Jason also shares some of his experience growing up in one of the urban neighborhoods that the New Geography piece claimed was anti-child.  There’s a lot of ink on this topic –Better Cities and Towns ran a piece yesterday as well – but I thought that the picture Jason painted of growing up in an urban neighborhood was worth sharing for those of you who did not have that kind of experience.   I grew up in a neighborhood that looked a lot like the one Jason describes, except that we lacked his neighborhood’s racial diversity.  So for me Jason’s neighborhood looks like largely familiar territory.  But that might not be the case for you.

OK.  You can keep reading, but only on one condition: please don’t read or mis-interpret this essay as a “suburbs suck/urban neighborhoods rock” kind of didactic post.  Please.  Jason’s point from yesterday is more important than anything he or I say about one kind of neighborhood or another.  There are pros and cons to every location – urban, rural, suburban, the Moon, whatever.  It’s not an either-or choice.  It’s a range of choices.  The metrics Jason laid out about fiscal sustainability and long-term community viability… those are what matter. Those are how we have to learn to discern places and place-creating and sustaining options.  Everything else is just noise.

Back to Jason:


So let’s get to the substance of [the New Geography post’s] argument. Much of his perspective, I believe, stems from projecting his own experiences of city and suburb onto society at-large. We all do to some degree.  We speak from what we know. You do the same thing. I will do some of it here. My initial reaction to his post on Twitter was defensive and reflected my own biases as well. It’s largely unavoidable.

So, in the interest of full disclosure; my formative experiences involving growing up in a city are as follows:

Akron Neighborhood
Akron Neighborhood. From thestile1972.tumblr.com

I was raised as the oldest of four children (all boys) by middle-class parents in Akron, Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s. My great-grandparents were poor immigrants from Hungary and Sicily. My grandparents were blue collar, working class, devout Roman Catholics: several factory workers and a cop. My father is an attorney. My beloved mother was a teacher and a homemaker.

We were a white family in a predominately black neighborhood. Like us, most of our white neighbors were Roman Catholic. Several were Jewish. Almost all of the white people, including us, went to private (Catholic) schools. Most of the black people went to public schools. Our block and the blocks surrounding it were full of nearly equal numbers of black and white residents, living side-by-side. To this day, it is still one of the most integrated neighborhoods that I have ever seen.

Playing sports and being the only white kid in a large group of black kids gave me a tiny feel for what many black people experience all of the time – being the lonely only in a group of whites.

My parents loved living in the city. My dad still lives in the house that I grew up in. But contrary to stereotypes, they were conservative Republicans and evangelical protestants (they left the Catholic church when I was a teenager). I’m not sure that they have ever voted for a Democrat. But they regularly supported tax levies for public transportation, schools, libraries, and parks. They were hardly urban elitists. I don’t think I ate a piece of sushi until I was close to 30. They have never owned a new car. They taught us to love and respect everyone, regardless of their race, creed, or color. We should have listened to them more often. They were the best parents that one could ever hope for, but that is a topic for another post.

I live in the City of Akron today. I am a Christian and a political independent. I voted for George W. Bush twice. I voted for Barack Obama twice. Go figure. I try to see political issues from as many sides as I am capable of seeing them from. I dislike the binary political choices we are usually offered. I am imperfect. I am wrong more often than I would like to believe. I will never be perfect, or perfectly fair, or totally unbiased, but I can learn, and grow. Just like everyone else.

Growing up in the city, we learned to be street-smart: unlocked doors were unheard of (they still shock me); unlocked bikes would be gone in 10 minutes; walking too far afield, especially at night, was ill-advised.

But our house was never broken into. None of us were ever the victims of violent crime. Neighbors looked out for one another. There were plenty of kids around – nearly every house on our block had at least two or three. Yards were not gigantic, but they were big enough to play baseball, football, hide-and-seek, and “fight the Soviet invaders with plastic guns” (hey, it was the 80s). There were plenty of parks nearby to enjoy. We went to story-hour at the local library. We played CYO soccer. We tried to get out of yard work as frequently as possible. We were happy kids. Living in the city wasn’t a form of child abuse.

Everyone owned a car. No one used public transportation. We walked and rode our bikes, but there were not a whole lot of stores or businesses to walk to, since neighborhood retail had already begun its inexorable march to the suburbs. It has never looked back. Our neighborhood is all the poorer for it.

So why am I boring you with all of the details of my life? Why? Because my experience does not remotely resemble the false dichotomies proffered as dogma in this (and in so many others) article on cities and suburbs. Contrary to what Lanza says, private schools didn’t destroy life for kids in my neighborhood. Kids from St. Sebastian? Kids from Archbishop Hoban? Kids from Walsh Jesuit? We all knew each other, carpooled together; rode the bus together. If nothing else, we were unified by hatred of our school uniforms.

Which box do I belong in? Which one does my family or life experience fit neatly into? The urban elitist? The All-American suburbanite?

The city that I grew up in and live in today is not one full of urbane, snooty, secular, childless, upper middle class elitists living in a concrete jungle with nowhere for the (non-existent) kids to play. This is Akron, Ohio. Have you ever been here? The city is full of single family homes on small (but adequate for children to play) lots. People living in the city own lawnmowers here. People drive everywhere here. It’s cheaper to live in the city than in the suburbs. “Driving ‘till you qualify” means driving further into the city, not out of it. There’s a lot of open space here in the city, because a lot of people moved to the suburbs. But there aren’t a whole lot of elitists to be found in either place. This is Ohio.

But Akron is still undoubtedly a city. It might not be a city like San Francisco, but it’s still a city, and the people that live here identify it as such. They have just as much pride in where they live as anyone else does. And they should be allowed to. But so should the people of San Francisco. And so should the people of Menlo Park. And so should the people of Stow, and Tallmadge, and Green.

Do I project my life experiences on to my understanding of what cities are and who lives there? Sure. Is my experience representative of, or applicable to that of most Americans? Probably not. Maybe a bit more so to those that grew up in the industrial Midwest. You know what I’m saying Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Buffalo, Flint…

But, similarly then, Lanza’s description of suburb hating and anti-child sentiment amongst some in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. is hardly representative of the experience of most Americans either; urban, suburban, small town, or rural.


Well said, Jason.

We have a range of communities, just like we have amazing varieties of people and families.  It’s not either-or.  It’s And.  And it’s within the context of Jason’s critical questions from yesterday:

1)    How do we support this place fiscally?

2)    How do we enable a quality place that will last for generations?

So let’s lose the false choices, and start focusing on the things that matter: making the places that we have better.

False Choices and the Only Differences Worth Exploring

Jason Segedy is a planner and transportation leader extraordinare, and he’s also one of very few people I have ever, ever met who can both talk with expertise about Complete Streets design and put a quote from Dostoyevsky in his email signature.  And then share an obscure Joy Division track.  The Renaissance Man is alive and well, thank you.

Jason recently started blogging, which is fantastic because he’s had a tendency to write multi-Tweet epistles that you know are saying something profound but you have to tease it out from all the intervening junk (not your tweets, of course!).   So I’ve been delighted to see him get a chance to take his perspective and run with it.

He posted a piece yesterday that quite impressed me – both for its insight and for its articulate-ness.  He embedded a description of the neighborhood where he grew up in the middle of it, and while that description paints a powerful picture, I wanted to make sure you heard both his primary focus and had an opportunity to think about that experience.  So I’m going to share his work with you via two posts.  This one is mostly focused on what I’ve termed in the past False Dichotomies…but I think Jason says it better than I did.  The second post is going to get into his personal reflections on what it was like to grow up in the kind of neighborhood that he sees being challenged.

Full, albeit uninteresting, disclosure: I had a piece published by New Geography a couple of years ago.  I read the blog occasionally, but I haven’t yet read the piece that Jason is responding to.  Didn’t want to wait the 6 months it might take me to get back to it at my current rate before I shared Jason’s work with you.

Make sure you go follow Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com, and pick him up on Twitter @thestile1972.  You will be glad you did.


Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin says this:

“In this bizarrely politicized environment, even the preservation of the most basic institution of society – the family – is morphing into a divisive partisan issue.”

I agree with him.

But then his very own web site runs an a post by Mike Lanza entitled “Suburb Hating is Anti-Child” that says this:

“A large proportion of intellectuals and politicians, including President Obama, decry these problems with suburbs as reason to hate them and advocate for their elimination, in favor of dense, big cities.”

So, after decrying the fact that the civic discourse regarding cities and suburbs has been “bizarrely politicized” and bemoaning the fact that it has “degenerated into a divisive partisan issue,” New Geography proceeds to do just that: create a bizarre politicized environment and foment partisan divisiveness over that very same issue.

What gives?

I have never seen someone with strong opinions about residential living environments (be they urban, suburban, small town, or rural) change their mind in a point/counterpoint exchange. It is about as likely as seeing atheists and theists; staunch conservatives and liberals; or abortion opponents and proponents change their point-of-view following a spirited debate. It doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond. Why?

Because I think the entire debate is a false choice to begin with. And if there is one thing that is singularly responsible for hamstringing our civic discourse in this country for as long as I’ve been alive, it is the proliferation of false choices and how they get foisted upon the unwilling and the unaware.

Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic. Elitists versus Salt-of-the-Earth; Enlightened versus Ignorant; Socialists versus Real American Patriots.

The real Americans are all in small towns! No, that’s where the bitter clingers and fanatics live!

It’s tiresome and depressing – all the more so  because none of it is even remotely close to the truth.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Good and decent people; people that love children, their neighbors, the place they live, and their country; they are found everywhere – big cities, small cities, suburbs, towns, rural areas. Everywhere. There are also some crummy people out there. Unfortunately, they can be found everywhere, too. And they always seem to have a disproportionately large negative impact. C’est la vie.

The only differences worth exploring and debating with regards to cities and suburbs, in my mind, are those that involve space and place; along with the associated and interrelated issues of:

1) Fiscal Sustainability: How do we ensure that taxpayer dollars devoted to public infrastructure are used wisely? and

2) Community Viability: How do we create places that future generations will cherish, enjoy, and be willing to sustain?

The short answer to both questions is that we should want to have cities, suburbs, small towns, and communities of all types which are fiscally sustainable and are built to last for generations to come. How precisely, we, the American people, should do that is a topic that is worth debating.

Here is what is not worth debating: Which types of people live in which places and which types of grievances do they have to bring against one another? Which places contain people that are good and virtuous and which ones contain people that are evil and corrupt?  This is all just begging the question.

The core premises  are fallacious: suburb hating; child hating.

Why do you hate the suburbs? Why do you hate children?

When did you stop beating your wife? These are classic loaded questions.

Are there people out there that hate suburbs? Yes. Are there people out there that hate children? Yes. Are there people that hate both, and see a connection between the two? I don’t know.  Probably.

Do most intellectuals and urban politicians hate suburbs and children? I don’t think so. Do some? Sure. There are boorish cranks in every crowd.

None of this is new, or noteworthy. People of every social class, ethnicity, and creed that have hated people that aren’t like them. There are not a lot of them, but there are far too many. This is why the history of humankind is one of nearly continual strife, bloodshed, and warfare.

But is there really an organized conspiracy, involving President Obama and a cadre of elite intellectuals, bent on eliminating suburbs?

If there is, they are failing miserably. Honestly, it begins to sound like Agenda 21 paranoia.

I don’t believe that Mike Lanza really believes in his heart of hearts that there is a far-reaching organized conspiracy to eliminate suburbs. I think this is simply rhetorical posturing on his part. But even if he does, this is America, and he is entitled to his opinion; and either way, I wish him well personally. We agree to disagree. He has something that he cares enough about to devote an entire blog post to it; he clearly cares about people and places, and that’s good enough for me.

But I don’t recognize my experience, or that of my urban friends, family, and colleagues in the piece that Mike Lanza has written. Similarly, I don’t recognize the caricatures of suburbanites that appear in the missives penned by those with a political axe to grind against the suburbs.


So let’s not do it anymore. Let’s not get caught up in these endless arguments about the real and imagined virtues or vices of the people that live here, or the people that live there.

Let’s focus instead on the ends that we can agree on: Quality places that are built to last, which people can love, care about, and will preserve; infrastructure and public investment which is fiscally sustainable and which furthers the cause of creating better places.

And let’s reserve our disagreements and our passionate debates (and we should have them) for the means to carry out those agreed-upon ends. What should our transportation policy look like? Housing policy? Land use? How do we strike that balance between environmental protection, jobs, and property rights? Let’s debate it all.

But let’s debate it with intelligence and good will. Let’s assume that one another’s intentions are benevolent, rather than malevolent. It’s obvious that Mike Lanza cares about places, he cares about people, and he cares about kids. I know that he is doing good work for kids. I apologize for hastily characterizing his piece as “outright lies” on Twitter yesterday. I still disagree with his overall premise and with the false choices that it entails. Disagree we may, but I think we can still learn from one another.

“To find the middle way will require all our intelligence and all our good will…”

-Aldous Huxley

You think you have tough public meetings? How about handling 10 languages? (Audio interview)

I did an interview in my role as Managing Editor for EngagingCities that I thought Wise Economy readers would also find interesting.  This half-hour discussion focuses on what an organization called CDF in Clarkston, Georgia is doing to build its residents’ ability to prioritize and addresses the community’s needs– and they’re doing it in a community that’s about as challenging as I can imagine.

You think it’s hard to have a productive public meeting in your town?  Imagine having a 42% foreign-born population, most of whom are refugees from civil wars, and running small group discussions among people who speak 10 different languages.  And then asking them to set priorities, designate representatives and figure out what to about them with a small but not insignificant pot of money. CDF’ s story will give you a good sense of what rising to a challenge like this takes.

I wrote a little more about this at Engaging Cities if you want a somewhat more detailed summary.  But stream or download from the link below to hear the story.  You won’t regret it.

Get better stilts: Uncertainty and The Number

Here’s the latest from my friend, regional analysis wizard and former real estate developer Dr. Peter Mallow, in our series of explorations about how the way we do economic analysis often sets us up for trouble.

In this one, Pete is taking on one of my favorite we-all-know-it-but-we-don’t-want-to-admit-it-and-then-it-bites-us topics: the fact that even our best predictions are built on inherent uncertainties.  We can’t avoid that, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, either.  So we ought to know what we’re looking at, and deal with it.


You can read Pete’s previous work here and here, and your can review an annotated version of a presentation we do here, and if you’re really a glutton you can listen to one of our presentations here.

Take it away, Pete!


If you read the past couple of posts on this topic, you learned that The Number can often be misleading or plain wrong.  For those that missed those posts, “The Number” refers to the new dollars, jobs, and taxes that an economic impact analysis claims will materialize from a new public project or a company coming to town. The expert or software has done some kind of magic with the data and returned a single Number that supposedly best describes how great the public project or company will be for the community.

People like The Number because it’s simple and it’s easy to understand.  However, it is almost always, by definition, wrong.  Even the best intentioned, well-meaning analysis is most certainly wrong when it reports one Number – that’s Statistics and Probability 101. We often excuse our Number’s lack of accuracy when we realize how far off The Number was through some variant of “garbage in, garbage out.”  We easily claim that the data or assumptions driving the analysis were flawed, and we can blame some combination of uncontrollable factors.

But this is an over-simplification of the problem. Uncertainty is, fundamentally the real problem, and most of the time uncertainty is the root cause of the Number turning out to be wrong.  Uncertainty exists everywhere in the analysis, whether the data is finely tuned or back of napkin.  Yet we give the uncertainty inherent in our analyses very little attention.

To better understand uncertainty, think of walking on stilts.  The smaller the base of the stilt the harder it is to balance and walk. The width of the base of the stilt represents how certain you are that The Number